Why Drink Granville Island Beer, Anyway?: Workers Confront Multinational Brewer on the Picket Line

Graphic illustrated by Chayadol Lomtong.

Granville Island is a hub for Vancouver’s tourism industry. The Island’s vendors and makers, who create everything from traditionally made brooms to small batch spirits, trade in the image of authenticity. That this image is built upon the skill and toil of workers is a commonly ignored detail. With the strike at Granville Island Brewing Company (GIB) entering its sixth week, we see the rough edges of this crafty branding.

The Granville Island Brewing Company (GIB) has made a business of marketing authenticity through the sale and promotion of its craft beer. Originally founded in 1984, GIB markets itself as “Canada’s first microbrewery.” This claim is contested, given that they were preceded by the short-lived Horseshoe Bay Brewery. Regardless, GIB is certainly an icon of Canadian brewing history, and its location in the heart of the Island has secured its place as a must-visit establishment for thirsty tourists. Given this carefully crafted reputation it may come as a surprise to many that GIB is neither independent nor local. In fact, its tenuous connection to the craft moniker depends entirely on its workforce, a workforce that is currently fighting for fair treatment and compensation. 

The GIB label is a small portion of an otherwise enormous macrobrewing portfolio owned by Molson Coors, a multinational conglomerate valued at over $13 billion  that is highly reliant on offsite brewing. Currently, GIB’s particular brand of West Coast authenticity is served up by a staff of retail, production, and tour guide workers who are currently on strike over substandard wage offers on the part of Molson Coors. For nearly a month and a half, these members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2 have maintained picket lines outside of the GIB brewpub at 1441 Cartwright St., pressing their demands and effectively halting the company’s ability to maintain its local image.

These workers and their supporters have joined an international strike wave that has won massive gains for workers in a variety of industries, from warehousing to truck driving. There is no reason why GIB workers shouldn’t expect improved conditions and higher wages, particularly at a time when their employer is publicly boasting record earnings. However, such gains require high levels of solidarity and support. Over the past few weeks, the GIB workers’ ongoing action  has been joined by other local, national and international unions. At their weekly Solidarity Saturdays picket support event, members have been joined by the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Laborers’ International Union (LiUNA), the Teamsters, and many others. With each passing week, SEIU pickets highlight an outpouring of support for local brewery workers who make and sell a product that many of us regularly seek out.

So, if GIB’s product isn’t technically craft beer, and if it’s owned by a massive corporation, why would anyone actually drink Granville Island beer? Simply, it is union made. Granville Island beers are made by workers who have had to fight for recognition and better conditions, and who serve as an example of the kinds of collective power that we should strive for throughout the industry. This is doubly important as brewery workers around the world continue to challenge toxic conditions and rampant exploitation at the hands of craft and corporate employers alike. As unionized Anchor Brewing workers in San Francisco attempt to buy the recently shuttered business and employees at Georgia’s Creature Comforts Brewing push for union recognition, GIB workers are courageously squaring up to a corporate behemoth while revealing just how high the stakes are.  

As corporate sales soar and other macrobreweries have begun to exit the craft-adjacent beer scene, it is crucial that we call on Molson Coors to bargain fairly with its workers and give them the wages and benefits they deserve. This globe-spanning employer can afford to pay its workers a fair wage. Their reluctance to pay is about profitability and the need to enact greater control over the its surplus-producing workforce.

If Molson Coors wants to live up to the authentic image that they have attempted to build around the GIB brand, they should acknowledge the work that goes into creating that image. It is time for them to make good on their promises to bargain with their workers. I, for one, look forward to once again being able to enjoy an interestingly crafted, union-made beer, and I hope that Molson Coors doesn’t keep me waiting.

Benjamin Anderson teaches in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, where he researches labour in craft industries.