Fair State Brewing Cooperative employees unionize as others struggle for recognition by ownership

Amidst concerns over COVID-19 safety, there is a push among food service workers to unionize. Employees at several breweries and coffee shops have notified their ownership of the intent to form a union in recent weeks.

“There’s a lot of stuff about our current job that’s quite good,” said Anders Bloomquist, a Fair State Brewing Cooperative employee. “We’re also in a pretty wild situation in the world especially in the service industry where things can change pretty rapidly.”

He’s been working at the brewery for more than two years. On Tuesday, he and other employees approached owner Evan Sallee about their intent to form a union.

“If changes do have to happen, if people have to be furloughed, if people have to be laid off, a union contract can really lay out that sort of thing much more specifically,” Bloomquist said

He said it can also help employees and management work together to tackle issues, including improving diversity among staff.

“I think that there is a lot of passion in the world today to fight for a more just, fair and equitable society and I think that really does need to involve our workplaces too,” said Sallee.

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He told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS it was a pretty quick decision to recognize the union on Wednesday after speaking with the Cooperative’s board of directors.

“I really see this as the next step in our evolution as a democratic business,” said Sallee.

Employees will be members of Unite Here! Local 17, which has been working with food service industry workers around the Twin Cities.

“I think it’s a message to other craft brewerists that we can work together,” said Sheigh Freeberg, the secretary-treasurer for the labor organization. “The union and the workers and the boss can work together so that the worker’s voices are heard […] It’s a real example for Minnesota hospitality owners and especially Minnesota craft brewing owners.”

On Thursday, Unite Here! Local 17 stood in solidarity with Spyhouse Coffee employees who again called on ownership to voluntarily recognize their union.

“People who are on the front lines, working at the cafe we are not feeling protected, we are not feeling like our voice is being heard,” said Grace Erpenbach, who works at the coffee shop. “We need to be part of the decisions that directly impact us and directly impact our customers."

She said the union would cover about 39 staff members at five Spyhouse locations.

“We’ve seen other bars, restaurants, cafes in the south Minneapolis area have COVID-19 outbreaks, so we are scared for our safety,” said Spyhouse Employee Matt Marciniec. “We want to make sure that’s the top priority for the company and make sure we are compensated for taking that risk.”

Minnesota Senate District 62 candidate Omar Fateh joined the employees in a show of support.

The company responded with a statement, which said, “Spyhouse is wholeheartedly committed to working to better serve the needs of our Spyhouse family so that we may collectively continue serving our community as a gathering place where our awesome and loyal customers begin and end their day with us. Spyhouse believes in the right of each and every eligible Spyhouse employee to vote in a formal free-choice election certified and governed by the National Labor Relations Board.”

Unite Here! Local 17 told us they are also working with Surly employees who are trying to form a union.

The brewing company has not voluntarily recognized its employees’ efforts. Days after staff announced their intent to organize, on Sept. 2, Surly ownership announced it will close the Beer Hall in November, citing a decline in revenue.

Freeberg told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they are pursuing a federal unfair labor practices charge alleging retaliation.

“We’re hoping that we can come to an agreement with Surly’s owner that protects the workers’ rights and allows them to have a vote on the union, a fair vote,” said Freeberg.

If an employer does not voluntarily recognize a union, workers can vote through a National Labor Relations Board election. If the majority of eligible members approve it, the NLRB will certify the union.

Freeberg said employees at both Spyhouse and Surly are now pursuing that process.

As a Fair State Brewing Cooperative employee, Blomquist acknowledges the larger movement happening in the Twin Cities.

“A lot of this it is acting in solidarity with folks, not just at other breweries but at other places in the service industry,” he said.

Sallee told us he’s proud of his employees and company for taking this step forward.

“You can build a fair and just place of employment but at the same time how that looks is different at every business so what’s right for us is not going to necessarily be right for anyone else,” he said. “I think it is something that can spread in our industry and help to build our industry into something that is more just."