“There Wouldn’t Be Craft Beer If It Weren’t For Us”
San Francisco's iconic Anchor Brewing Company is now the scene of a unionization fight. We spoke with Brace Belden, one of the organizers.
- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Anchor Brewing Company is often called the first craft brewery in America. It operates the largest factory in San Francisco, and the company has deep historical roots in the City by the Bay.
But then, so does the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
Last week, workers at the Anchor brewery announced they were attempting to join the ILWU. “Anchor is a San Francisco tradition,” they wrote in a petition announcing their intent to unionize and soliciting public support. “It used to be one of its best places to work — and it can be again.
“Anchor workers should be paid enough to live in San Francisco. We’re struggling to survive and raise our families. The work we do is exhausting, and we have to keep moving farther and driving longer to survive. We deserve to be #anchoredinsf too.”
Jacobin’s Meagan Day talked to Anchor worker Brace Belden, who’s involved in the unionization effort, about the nature of the industry, the challenges of organizing, and the benefits of unions to anyone who works for a living.
Why and how did Anchor Steam workers decide to do this?
A lot of this started in 2016, when a few guys got together and thought about forming a union. The factory had been sold by Fritz Maytag, who’d owned it for a long time and led its resurgence as a craft brewery. They got together and talked about unionizing. It didn’t work out, but it stayed in their heads.
Anchor Steam was sold to Sapporo in 2017, and a lot of guys really started to think about it more seriously. Like, “Wait a minute, we’re part of a giant ten-billion-dollar corporation now, and the starting wage is decreasing, the raises haven’t gotten any more generous.”
So I got there in February of 2018, and a little after that those guys got together again and invited me. We went to a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) here, someone who was the new organizing coordinator of the Labor Organizing Committee, and basically asked him for help, because none of us knew what we were doing. None of us had done this before, and I don’t even think any of us had been in a union at another job before. He connected us to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and that’s when things really took off.
We spent a long, hard year just talking to our coworkers. We all have the same issues. You either have to drive two hours to get here from your house way out there, or you can barely pay rent here, you have to have two other jobs. I myself have two other jobs. And there’s a lot of insecurity, because we’re at-will employees, which means we can get fired at any time. So we just talked to each other and were able to come together around issues we all share.
Do you think people are starting to have a more positive view of unions, and did that factor into your efforts to organize your coworkers?
The teachers’ unions, I would say, have almost single-handedly led to resurgent interest in unions.
Where do most people usually hear anything about unions? Either on TV or on the news. If you see them on a sitcom, like King of Queens or something, you get the impression that they’re a way to protect lazy employees, they take your dues. Think of the people who produce these TV shows, and then think of the people who produce the news. You see a lot of the same things. They’ll find one corrupt union in a country of 350 million people or whatever.
But the teachers’ strikes that started last year have been front-page news in a lot of places. Unions definitely haven’t been in the news this much since the protests against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in 2010.
Guys I work with see it all the time, and we bring it up a lot. Some guy last night said in the group chat we have, “Tonight think of the Denver teachers!” Lots of the guys live in Oakland, where teachers are preparing to strike, and so unions are on their minds. And the teachers’ unions keep winning, which is encouraging. The teachers’ unions are probably our biggest influence, honestly.
What are some of the biggest barriers or concerns you encounter when you try to get your coworkers on board with the union?
The biggest barriers are misconceptions, and there are a lot of those. I understand it. If you have no experience with a union, why would you know how union dues structures work?
We have people who are worried that the union is just out for dues and is going to take all their money. A pretty good way to counter that is to point out that workers wouldn’t ever start a union if they were going to lose money, or if they were going to be in a worse position than when they began. There’s just no way that would happen.
Another thing is this idea that unions protect lazy workers. But in our factory, there’s no rulebook right now. We’re at-will employees, which means they keep us around because they don’t have to pay us much, and they can fire us for any reason. If we had a rulebook, we could point to that and say, “These are the reasons you can fire me.” And we’d have to adhere to it too.
There’s another thing, which I totally get, which is the concerns of legacy employees. Most of them were fired actually two transitions ago, but the ones who are left are worried about shaking things up. I get it, when you’re in a comfortable spot, you don’t want anything to change because it could change for the worse. But they’re really not that secure right now. They could still get fired for any reason, even after thirty-five years. We tell them, “With us, you’ll be protected.” And these guys really are valuable employees, they’ve been here forever.
Working people have it hard everywhere, but San Francisco is a pressure cooker. Tell me about organizing workers in the most expensive city in America.
It’s rough here. Almost all of our organizing committee, except for me and one other guy, lives outside of San Francisco. We’re the biggest factory in San Francisco, and even though we don’t have hard stats, I can tell you anecdotally that most workers don’t live in the city. Some guys live two hours away. And we get there early.
Unless you have rent control, you can’t afford a place. I get paid $16.50 an hour, and I work twenty-eight hours a week, sometimes less. I work two other jobs, and I have rent control — that’s how I live in the city.
That said, there’s a stronger working-class base in San Francisco than people think. There are still large numbers of working-class people here, especially a big working-class Latino population. But unlike yesteryear, we’re not all gathered in the same place. There aren’t these big factories and big firms like there used to be. So it makes it hard to organize. But that’s one of the reasons we’ve had luck. We’re a factory where there are seventy-five working-class people gathered in one place.
And you guys have had a ton of support from other working-class people since you announced your union drive, right?
The support we’ve had from talking to people is amazing. When we tell them our problems, that we can’t pay rent or have to live super far away or that we struggle to keep up with bills, every single working-class person in San Francisco faces those same struggles, bar none. When we talk to people about that, we get hugs and high-fives. We all have different things going on in our lives, but we’re all united in the fact that we don’t have that much money and we work really hard.
The bartenders showed us so much support. I’ve done a lot of canvassing in my life, and usually the answer rate and the yes rate are pretty low, and it’s nerve-wracking. Canvassing bars for the union was like the greatest night of my life. Every bar we went to, the people working there were overjoyed. The first bar we went to had an Anchor Steam sign from the sixties, and the guy took eight signs and was asking to take our picture and everything. And the people in the bar flipped out too, and we gave away all of our stickers and our flyers.
There was only one place that didn’t put up any posters, another brewery. But the employees there were very interested, which was really cool.
A lot of people who work in craft brewing are really passionate about it and love making good beer. I’m wondering if you’ve encountered this phenomenon, the sort of “do what you love” mantra that often shades into, “You should just feel lucky to have a job doing something you like and not get greedy and ask for more.”
Yeah, one of my coworkers was even talking about this today. We get told a lot that it’s an honor to work at Anchor Steam, and it absolutely is. I actually love working here, it’s one of the first jobs I’ve truly enjoyed.
But at some point you look at how craft beer profits have positively soared, and how the wages in the industry have dropped, and you start to think that maybe we’re getting scammed. You start to understand that there wouldn’t be craft beer if it weren’t for us.
There’s this culture of masochism in craft brewing, this idea of “it’s hard and messy, but we’re all in this together.” But we’re not all in this together. Us workers are, but the people who make the money, they’re not down there on the factory floor. They’re taking vacations and driving nice cars to work, cars that we see.
That’s one of the core ideas on the Left, that fighting side by side for better working or living conditions accelerates the development of class consciousness.
Once you start to see the brewery for what it is, which is a factory, then you start to think, well what are we? We’re factory workers. And what are the bosses? Maybe they market the beer. But not really, they hire someone else to do that. So they sell the beer? No, they hire someone to do that too.
So what do they do, besides make money off of us? We keep the lights on, we keep the machines running, we keep the bottles filled. Once you start to think about all this, and especially when you start to think about how much they sell each case of beer for and how much money you make an hour, things start to come into focus.
Class divisions in this country haven’t been this sharp since probably the beginning of the last century. But they’re still purposely blurred by this idea that we’re all the same, we’re all Americans or whatever. Well, there are some Americans who don’t have to go to jail. There are some Americans who don’t have to pay rent. There are some Americans who don’t even have to work. And I’m not talking about people on welfare, because that’s a harder job than any CEOs.
And it says it right in the ILWU motto: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” If I get a raise, we all get a raise, and vice versa. We have a pretty diverse group of guys, but this process has really showed us the commonality of our struggle.
There are people reading this who don’t feel like they’re getting a fair shake at their job. Maybe the idea of forming a union is starting to look more appealing. What would you say to those people?
First, make a list of all your coworkers. Then start talking to them.