“Beers and Fries, Please Don’t Unionize!”: Your Favourite Local Haunt is Anti-Worker

Image from Google Maps

For over a decade we’ve heard breathless celebrations of local and artisanal businesses as the antidote to the runaway corporatization of daily life. Buying locally sourced and produced goods has been lauded as a rejection of the corporate status quo, an investment in our communities, and a means to create the conditions for fair and edifying jobs. Unfortunately, this upbeat narrative often breaks down when the workers in these local enterprises tell their own stories.

Over the last month the experiences of numerous workers in craft and artisanal industries across Vancouver have come to wide public attention thanks to worker testimonies circulated on the Instagram accounts @NotOurP49 and @NotOurCafes (formerly @NotOurMatchstick and, at the time of this publishing, now taken down on Instagram for unknown reasons). Building on the successful tactics of @NotMyStellas – a workers’ initiative to combat harassment, anti-union practices, and unjust firings at a popular Winnipeg restaurant chain – these new accounts document myriad instances of sexism, homophobia, racism and harassment in Vancouver’s craft beverage and coffee industries. In testimonials, workers describe their personal experiences in toxic workplace cultures, reporting feeling unsafe, dehumanized, and undervalued at work. 

The stories range from first-hand accounts of racist, sexist, and homophobic bullying to general descriptions of favouritism, callousness, and anti-union and anti-worker sentiment on the part of ownership and management. Read together and in their entirety, these accounts paint a dramatically different picture of craft industries than the one ordinarily fed to us. In this picture, the businesses and the industries to which they belong appear as small ponds of nepotism, exploitation, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Far from standing out as a rebellious vanguard against corporate control, craft industries are a petri dish where some of the most toxic elements of working cultures coalesce and thrive. 

For what it’s worth, Parallel 49 has responded to these reports with a number of actions it plans to take to address its toxic workplace. However, the actions proposed by Parallel 49 – an independent HR workplace audit and the eventual hiring of a HR professional – should not be read as a victory for concerned workers, ex-workers, or pro-labour community members. These actions, while perhaps addressing workers’ reports to some degree, fall short of giving workers a real say in the policies and practices of their workplaces. Moreover, they concentrate any response to the issues within the hands of a not-yet-formed HR department which, in all likelihood, will continue to prioritize the interests of ownership and management over those of workers. Parallel 49’s public statements of responsibility and the stepping back of one of Matchstick Coffee’s co-owners are necessary first steps, of course, but left on their own they are likely to result in little material change in the labour practices of these companies and thus the everyday experiences of workers. 

The question we should ask is not necessarily what public actions Parallel 49, St. Augustine’s (another business venture of the Parallel 49 ownership group), or Matchstick are willing to take voluntarily, especially as such actions will almost certainly include a heavy degree of face-saving public relations. Instead we should consider what options are available for workers to combat these kinds of workplace cultures and to push for their own interests in the workplace. The answer lies in building collective power by organizing a union. 

What hasn’t been addressed in much of the public discourse so far is that workers at some of these businesses and others in Vancouver’s craft beverage sector (including at JJ Bean, where the recently-resigned co-owner of Matchstick was formerly a manager) have attempted just this – often with disastrous personal results. Additionally, the Instagram testimonials point to overt anti-union stances on the part of management, with Parallel 49 ownership and management jokingly referring to their informal staff meetings as “Beers and Fries (please don’t unionize).”

In my doctoral research at Simon Fraser University, I have interviewed a number of craft workers in Vancouver and other Pacific Northwest cities. Although many brewers and artisans report high levels of job satisfaction and autonomy, the same cannot often be said of the remaining staff, who make up the bulk of the workforce in these industries. Front-of-house workers and back-of-house support staff (packaging, warehousing, cellaring, etc.) frequently report unsafe conditions, harassment, unfair treatment and rigid hierarchies in businesses like craft breweries and coffeehouses – reports that echo those documented on these Instagram accounts. 

One report that resonated with me as a labour activist was from a former Parallel 49 server who was fired last year, ostensibly due to her involvement in an attempt to form a union in the Vancouver brewery. In the winter of 2018/2019 a collection of workers at Parallel 49 began meeting with organizers from the Vancouver local of an international labour union. This was not the first such attempt at the brewery, the previous taking place in December 2014 and ultimately failing during the voting phase of unionization, an outcome attributable to fear of management reprisal according to some accounts from former employees. What makes the more recent unionization campaign noteworthy is the overt anti-union sentiment among management that the @NotOurP49 testimonials reflect. 

The hopeful news is that over the last two years there have been a handful of successful organizing attempts within craft industries, the most notable being the successful unionization of craft beer pioneer Anchor Brewing and Tartine Bakery, both in San Francisco. It is also worth noting that for decades workers employed by the ‘evil empire’ of macro-brewing have enjoyed the benefits of unionized workplaces – collective bargaining rights, greater degrees of occupational health and safety, and higher wages than many of their craft brewing counterparts. Local 300 of the Brewery Winery & Distillery Workers Union, a division of SEIU, currently represents unionized workers at Molson, Okanagan Spring, Pacific Western and Granville Island Breweries. What’s more, in my discussions with brewery workers in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland over the last two years, many report that they would consider a change of employer to a macro-brewery if it meant having union benefits. Almost all of them said they would welcome a union at their workplace. In the café and coffee shop world, labour organizers have faced stops and starts in efforts to get a foothold, although interest has been growing amongst workers for the better part of a decade. Unionization drives in cafes have had varying degrees of success on the east coast, notably in 2013 with baristas banding together to organize Second Cup and other shops with SEIU Local 2 under a union push they called Baristas Rise Up.

The true power of this spate of worker testimonials is the public scrutiny that it has brought upon industries that are commonly seen as ethical alternatives to the excesses of international chains and corporate franchises. These accounts have started a conversation about what expectations workers, customers and community members should have of these businesses and what they are willing to do to ensure these expectations are met. 

But individual public reports (however connected they might be to similar accounts from co-workers and workers in parallel industries) are not sufficient to make much of a dent in – much less overthrow – the corporate scheme responsible for these inequities in the first place. The co-owner of Matchstick has reportedly responded to this public scrutiny by stepping back (presumably to be replaced by another ‘boss’ of sorts and with maintained capital investment in the company), and Parallel 49 has has undertaken their workplace audit (which suspiciously reports that the toxic conditions detailed by former employees do not currently exist). There is still much to be done to push these industries as a whole to treat workers with dignity, respect, and fairness.

In a period where frontline workers and so-called ‘essential’ production staff work under the intensified pressure and uncertainty of new COVID-inflected routines, it is crucial that they band together to develop a collective voice. For the current workers at Parallel 49, Matchstick and other craft food and beverage businesses in Vancouver, the megaphone created by these public reports is a massively powerful platform. 

Their next move must be to demonstrate their collective power and substantively shift the conditions within their respective workplaces. Public callouts have been critical to raising awareness and compelling management to respond in kind – however performatively – but the actions workers take in the aftermath and with newfound momentum have the potential to be the most meaningful and long-lasting. 

With the Vancouver community watching, now is the time to embrace the teachings of workers who came before us: reach out to a union – the Brewery, Winery & Distillery Workers Union or the Industrial Workers of the World, to name just a few –  and start using that power to change these workplaces substantially and permanently. Don’t leave correcting work issues in the hands of the very people and businesses that created these toxic environments in the first place. Join together and fight for the changes you want to see.