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A union wave for Twin Cities hospitality workers

Paul KD charts the rapid growth of a union movement among craft breweries and service workers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.

On June 26, after a month of persistent protest following the murder of George Floyd, workers at Tattersall, a micro-distillery in Minneapolis’s Northeast neighborhood, announced that they had decided to unionize with UNITE HERE Local 17. This was not a large workplace, but the news made waves among the local service industry scene.

Tattersall is the first micro-distillery in the United States, as well as the first service industry workplace in its locality, to unionize, in years. The bosses, in predictable fashion, decided to fight the union, posting an anti-union statement on their social media. By the end of the day, after seeing their comments section flooded with pro-union regulars vowing to take their business elsewhere, Tattersall management started to back down. A picket outside the distillery a few days later showed that a fire had been lit: instead of the usual mix of three plumbers, a couple of stagehands, and the odd socialist, the picket was over 200 strong, full of mostly-young, non-union service workers, many walking a picket line for the first time.

A month later, Tattersall workers had officially won their NLRB election, while another workplace, Spyhouse Coffee, joined them in organizing a union of their own. On August 31, workers at the Surly Beer Hall, an outgrowth of the Surly craft brewery, whose beer is sold nationwide (and a recent recipient of more than $2 million in state funding), publicly announced their union.

The bosses at Surly were not prepared to back down and swiftly retaliated by announcing the Beer Hall would be closed indefinitely, starting in November. The workers responded to these challenges not with fear, but with more radical tactics. UNITE HERE Local 17 and the Twin Cities DSA organized a picket at the Surly Beer Hall, with 300-400 supporters turning out and blocking the entrances; the owner of Surly began to negotiate with the workers.

On September 9th, two more small distilleries, Stillheart and Lawless, as well as the Fair State Co-op Brewery, announced unions with Local 17. The bosses at these workplaces voluntarily recognized the unions, not wanting to get dragged into any fights.

Surly and Local 17 announced on September 24th that they had come to an agreement for a fair election procedure, circumventing the NLRB’s delays. While the workers could not stop Surly from laying them off, if all goes well they will have their union recognized by the date of the shutdown. This is a major victory considering how easy it is for bosses to delay elections under Trump’s NLRB, but it also shows the limitations of this burgeoning movement. Surly, one of the fifty largest craft breweries in all of the U.S., is carried nationwide. Unfortunately, the production side of the company is not in the union, giving the boss a lot of breathing room if they decide to cut their losses with the Beer Hall. The main weapon of the workers now is public pressure, and it can only go so far.

In response to Spyhouse management firing a union-friendly manager and attempting to split up the bargaining unit, Spyhouse workers struck on Saturday, September 19th. The first service-industry strike in Minnesota in twenty years, workers at all five stores completely shut down business for the day. Baristas stood outside the stores all morning, blasting music from Bluetooth speakers and handing out fliers with the owner’s email. Baristas then converged at Spyhouse’s original location in the Northeast neighborhood for a rally that ended up spilling off the sidewalk and into the street. Spyhouse management kept up their fear tactics following the strike, leaving the stores closed for the next two days and scheduling a series of captive audience meetings. Undeterred, the workers staged a mass delegation to the boss in defiance.

Workers picket outside Spyhouse Coffee.

With the roasters also being included in the union, the workers have more economic power here, but continued public support will be crucial. The bosses have no intention of backing down, and can afford a temporary loss of business. In order for workers to notch a victory, it is critical that they’re able to bring this union wave to other businesses, while making it publicly known that Spyhouse will not be able to live down such flagrant union-busting.

Why the Twin Cities? Why now?

Minnesota has a long history of militant unionism, from the Minneapolis Teamsters of the 1930s, to the Austin Hormel workers of the 1980s. As the manufacturing jobs that housed many of these unions have migrated elsewhere, growth in the service industry has filled the gap. This is often a literal replacement: many of the breweries and distilleries in the area, in need of large height clearances and storage space, are housed in the once-empty warehouses that dot the area. Just as these newer businesses have sprouted up, signs of a new union movement are forming along with them. Indeed, many of the businesses that have been organized are located in the old industrial zones of the traditionally working-class and union-heavy Northeast neighborhood of Minneapolis.

COVID-19 was the immediate cause for much of the recent unionization push. The pandemic ushered in a serious crisis in the service industry, with the vast majority of workers being thrown out of work for an indefinite period, including many who were purposefully excluded by the government from unemployment benefits. During this time, multiple restaurants shut down permanently, including one owned by one of Minnesota’s richest families. Where businesses remained open, workers who stayed on the job often saw their workload increase, having to perform multiple jobs on a skeleton crew with no clear safety plan. In the case of Tattersall distillery, workers produced hand sanitizer to address the pandemic but received no hazard pay.

As the lockdowns were lifted, businesses that decided to reopen did so with a similar level of discourtesy. Workers at Spyhouse were brought back on short notice with a safety plan left “in progress” through the middle of August.

Some workers who had not been able to receive the extended federal unemployment were relieved to go back to work. The workers who had gotten access to the funds, however— suddenly receiving benefits worth more than anything they had received in the workplace—were not thrilled to come back to work for the same rate as before. Beyond wages, many employees found themselves at a new level of danger in an industry already known for its unsafe practices. Even the most basic precautions have only come after protracted fights. Workers at Caribou Coffee only won PPE after a massive phone zap to management. Spyhouse workers had plexiglass shields installed at service counters only after they announced their union.

For workers who feel safer now, such as those at Stillheart and Lawless distilleries, the coming of winter and the end to outdoor dining brings further uncertainty. Dwindling business due to the pandemic also wreaked havoc on tips, which is the main source of income for many workers. At Surly, a new “service charge” was announced, causing tips to decrease. Workers thought that the revenue from the charge would make up for this, only to realize that management had decided to pocket part of it to pay for PPE.

Just as most restaurants were preparing to reopen, the murder of George Floyd caused the Twin Cites to erupt in a weeks-long uprising. While many restaurants boarded their windows and made public statements proclaiming their allegiance to Black Lives Matter, service workers protested in the streets and donated to the many mutual aid efforts that sprung up. But as workers returned to their jobs, they found their bosses’ commitments to fight racism were discarded along with the plywood.

This is what spurred Tattersall workers to take action. When they demanded a plan for diversifying the workplace, the all-white management announced that this would only come at the expense of cutting existing jobs; Spyhouse Coffee has been notorious for calling the cops on BIPOC customers for years. In June, a resurfaced letter from the owner in 2012, full of racist tropes, elicited disgust from many of the baristas.

While immediate issues have motivated large numbers of new workers to take action, there has been sustained organizing in the Twin Cities service industry for years. Worker centers, such as Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL) and Restaurant Opportunities Center-Minnesota (ROC-MN), organized restaurant workers during the Fight for $15 in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They were able to stop a sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, and also won city-wide paid sick time in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Workers at breweries and distilleries also drew inspiration from San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery unionization with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the first craft brewery in the country to get organized. Since their 2019 victory, Anchor workers have continued to reach out and aid brewery workers across the country, hoping to start a wave of unionization in the industry. Fair State Brewery workers, who took a much more standard, year-long drive, were in contact with the Anchor Union for much of this process. And while many unions shy away from representing small, unstable workplaces such as restaurants, Twin Cities workers have found a willing and eager partner in UNITE HERE Local 17. Formerly a dysfunctional, bureaucratic union, a slate of staffers and rank-and-file members took over in 2017 with a mandate to empower members and build a more transparent union. The new leadership, including multiple DSA members, has worked hard to build back the militancy of the union and organize new shops, like a new hotel attached to the airport that was successfully organized in 2019.

While this is an encouraging start, there is still a long way to go in order to transform this industry. With the exception of Surly, the shops that have organized have been relatively small, and full of politically-active staff. For the workplaces where production staff have been organized, a case can be made that the owners have invested too much capital to shut down operations as readily as restaurant owners. Moreover, organizing among a couple hundred workers is impressive, but tiny compared to the workers employed in the Twin Cities alone; consider those workers employed at a single massive suburban warehouse, such as Amazon. Huge challenges await, from bosses unfazed by bad media, to workplaces split along lines of language, class, and race. Still, it is clearly a special time to organize in Minnesota.

Many workers have had the direct experience of helping to spark an international uprising just a few months ago, and remember the political agency they felt during those nights. This wave has started to spread beyond the service world, with non-profit workers, radio stations, and the Walker Art Center museum recently announcing unions.

How can we spread this momentum to bigger workplaces and industries, while making sure that bosses don’t crush the unions that have already formed? This is where large, cross-workplace networks can play a big role. By learning from struggles in other workplaces, workers in the Twin Cities can stay a step ahead in their own fights. We know that the bosses, after all, are meeting and discussing tactics with each other. When workers need help in their own struggles, other workplaces can sound the alarm. Through signal chats, social media accounts, and meetings on the picket line, the beginnings of such a network are appearing. Surly and Spyhouse point to this. The sustained pressure put on the bosses by workers and their allies, has led to an agreement for an expedited election process at Surly, and stopped Spyhouse management from trying anything truly egregious. This solidarity will be even more important in the future, as workers embark on the long, tough road of fighting for their first contracts, and organizing new shops as the initial union fever wears off.

In the work that I am involved in, the Restaurant Organizing Project (a group of restaurant workers organizing under the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission), we have been happy to share stories from Minnesota throughout our small national network. These stories and victories are already starting to inspire organizing drives among workers in other cities. Perhaps soon it will be restaurant workers in Las Vegas or Houston inspiring workers here in the Twin Cities!

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Paul KD View All

Paul KD is a member of UFCW Local 663, an activist in the labor movement in the Twin Cities, and a member of the Tempest Collective.