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Goose Island pushed back on union drive, then laid off organizers

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Goose Island

People drink beer at Goose Island Brewhouse, March 24, 2021, in Chicago.

Like many union drives, workers at Goose Island Beer Co. began organizing quietly, in spring 2019.

For months, a core of employees leading the effort at Chicago’s oldest brewery met covertly with colleagues — coffee shops in the morning and bars at night, with full workdays in between — offering visions of a more equitable workplace.

By early 2020, as many as 75% of Goose Island’s approximately 125 employees eligible to join a union expressed support, organizers said in interviews with the Chicago Tribune. Months of toil seemed poised to succeed.

But then, weeks before taking the union drive public, organizers ran into a pair of buzz saws. First, management learned of the plan and responded with what several organizers believe was an aggressive and occasionally intimidating effort to thwart unionization.

Weeks later came the second hurdle: the COVID-19 pandemic. With all but essential production employees furloughed or shifted to working from home, momentum waned.

Finally, on June 2, 2020, citing a downturn due to the pandemic, Goose Island laid off what union organizers estimate to be at least 20 employees. Among those sent packing were several vocal union advocates, including the three core organizers.

The Chicago Tribune spoke with seven former Goose Island employees involved in the union drive, some at its core and some who were supporters; five were laid off.

Several people active in the union drive say they don’t doubt the company was under financial strain at the time. But they also believe Goose Island used the layoffs to target leading union activists and to finish off their efforts. According to current and former employees, the idea of unionizing Goose Island has withered away.

“I don’t know if I think there were only layoffs because of the union drive,” said Grace Vasquez, a core organizer laid off during summer 2020 after nearly three years as a server, bartender, tour guide and floor manager. “But I think who got laid off was in direct response to the union drive.”

Goose Island declined to answer questions about the union drive or the layoffs. But in a statement from Goose Island president Todd Ahsmann issued Sept. 17, the company said it “always respected our employees’ right to decide for themselves about union representation.”

The statement attributed the layoffs to the pandemic, which it said “significantly impacted our business” and led the company to combine sales and marketing forces for Goose Island and its subsidiary, Virtue Cider, “to share expertise, maximize resources and focus on opportunities that will allow our business to adapt to the changing industry.” The pandemic also led to layoffs at the brewery’s two Chicago bars and shuttering the Philadelphia pub Goose Island launched in 2018, the statement said.

“The incredibly difficult decision to separate with some sales, marketing and pub employees, both salaried and hourly, was entirely based on the new operating realities facing our industry, particularly bars and restaurants,” the statement said. “We continue to be grateful for their contributions to the company during their time here.”

Like many businesses, Goose Island’s global parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, struggled during the pandemic, with revenues declining 3.7% in 2020, according to its annual report to shareholders.

But a bright spot was in the U.S., where Anheuser-Busch led the nation’s beer industry in dollar growth, according to market research firm IRI, due in large part to the company’s “above core portfolio,” which includes craft breweries such as Goose Island, the report says.

Brewing discontent

Goose Island’s response to the union drive as described by organizers is similar to the approach often taken by companies trying to fend off unionization, said Nik Theodore, a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied employer reaction to unionization.

Employers usually oppose unionization, he said, to stave off rising costs associated with a labor contract and losing unilateral power over employees.

When confronted with a union drive, a company may respond first with the suggestion that issues can be handled in-house without a union, Theodore said. Escalating tactics often include mandatory meetings, anti-union literature and warnings that moving forward would cost jobs or benefits, he said.

In some cases, Theodore said, laying off employees at the core of a union drive can be seen as a final step when trying to quash such efforts. In such scenarios, he said, employers will cite business needs to justify layoffs and may also lay off employees not affiliated with union drives along with union leaders.

Positive incentives are also commonly used, he added.

“It’s not all about punishment,” he said. “Some people will be promoted. Some people will get bonuses or will get raises. It’s a signal: ‘As a company, we are here to take care of you.’”

Organizing has been a continuing theme in the beer industry since San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing unionized two years ago, which one labor lawyer called “a potential watershed moment” for the beer industry. Since then, brewery workers in Minneapolis and Cleveland have also taken steps toward unionizing.

At Goose Island, the broadest support for unionization was at the brewery’s Clybourn Avenue pub, where the brand launched in 1988. Multiple former pub employees said they felt like second-class citizens compared to workers at Goose Island’s Fulton Street headquarters.

Bartenders at the Fulton Street taproom had a base pay close to three times the hourly rate as bartenders at the Clybourn pub, according to people who have worked at both locations. Adding in tips, the disparity could map out to $30 to $40 an hour for Fulton Street bartenders compared to about $15 to $20 an hour for bartenders at the Clybourn pub.

But frustrations ran deeper than money, some former employees said. At Goose Island’s holiday party in 2018, the former employees said, Clybourn pub employees had to serve workers from the Fulton Street headquarters, which led to broad discontent.

Vasquez, who was among those serving at the party, said workers felt “embarrassed, ashamed, unlucky and unappreciated” to wait on people they thought of as peers.

“It was always a stressed and tense space,” Vasquez said of the Clybourn pub. “The staff isn’t respected by other parts of Goose Island. There was always an ‘us against them’ tension.”

Unionization efforts began the following spring. Each department had its motivating issues, organizers said, with some upset at the sense they would be paid better doing the same work elsewhere, including at the U.S. parent company, Anheuser-Busch, which bought Goose Island from founder John Hall in 2011.

Employees sometimes put in hours of unpaid work outside their scheduled shifts, according to a former employee and union organizer, who did not want to be named because he remains active in labor organizing at his current job and other workplaces.

One common motivating issue among workers, especially brewers, was safety, particularly repetitive injuries and chemical exposure, the former employee said. Many of the most effective safety standards at Goose Island were passed down from Anheuser-Busch; several brewers hoped to see a contract that would further cement safety as a priority, he said.

A brewery can be a physically demanding workplace, with kegs that can weigh upward of 160 pounds and minor construction projects at beer festivals and events, the former employee said.

In some cases, former employees felt, safety didn’t seem like a primary concern.

In a September 2019 example, union organizer Maddie Mathie said she was changing a keg in a refrigerated room at the Clybourn Avenue pub when she became lightheaded and felt as if she might pass out. When she told management something was amiss, she said, a manager asked if she had remembered to eat breakfast.

Another manager checked the keg room and confirmed something was wrong, according to Mathie, which led to the discovery of a poisonous carbon dioxide leak. The situation was resolved, but Mathie said management never addressed the issue broadly with workers or provided instruction in case such an issue were to happen again. Managers joked for the rest of the day that she had been “the canary in the coal mine,” Mathie said.

“I always felt there were a lot of things handled too casually, and that further instilled this idea that no matter what happens, things will blow over,” she said.

Ahsmann acknowledged the 2019 incident in a statement Sept. 22, saying a “CO2 tank was inadvertently left open during routine tap line maintenance. This was addressed immediately in accordance with our protocols.”

Mathie said she was drawn into the union effort in part because she was frustrated about not being paid what she considered a fair wage for hours spent on chalkboard and window art at the Clybourn pub. During her two years working at the pub, Mathie said, she spent as many as 100 hours on art projects, usually while scheduled as a host and paid $10 an hour without tips.

“It felt like there were different playing fields for everyone,” Mathie said. “(It) felt like everyone had some form of a story like mine with the chalkboard art: We work at this cool place, but it doesn’t always feel cool, and I feel sort of taken advantage of.”

Another experience galvanized her toward the end of 2019, when an ardent Goose Island fan from the East Coast visited the brewery, according to Mathie. She said a pub manager told her the man would be on her tour and that he might try to kiss her. If he did, Mathie said she was told, the easiest thing was to consent.

“They essentially said it would be less complicated if I just let it happen,” Mathie said.

Mathie said she was conflicted, proud to be asked to lead the tour for an important guest, but confused by what the manager was telling her. She said she didn’t want to be perceived by her bosses as “a bad sport.”

After the tour, Mathie said, the man did lean in for a kiss, but she was able to turn her head so it landed on her cheek. Vasquez independently confirmed talking that day with Mathie about the event and Mathie’s account of her conversation with the manager.

Mathie said her bosses gave the man her cellphone number, and that he continues to send her occasional text messages, to which she does not respond. He texted her most recently Sept. 12, she said, which included a photo of him and his family drinking Goose Island beer.

To Mathie, the incident affirmed her commitment to unionizing.

“It seemed like if we could talk about these things, and if they were experienced in the light of day with everyone looking, they would never happen that way,” Mathie said.

In his Sept. 22 statement, Ahsmann said a question from the Chicago Tribune about the 2019 incident “is the first time we’ve been made aware of this situation, and we’re taking it very seriously. We have several processes in place for employees to report incidents, and every concern reported is thoroughly investigated.”

Working at a brewery, it felt important to win significant support from Goose Island’s brewing staff, which organizers say they gradually did. Dan Floyd, who worked as a brewer for nearly five years, said more than half the brewing staff of about 20 people supported the effort at its peak.

His catalyzing issue, Floyd said, was something unionization typically prevents: a schedule shift imposed by management. In late 2019, Goose Island changed the brewing workweek from four 10-hour days to five eight-hour days. Floyd said he was gravely disappointed by the move.

“I was frustrated, and the idea was that with a union involved, that couldn’t happen — on a whim, you can’t change everyone’s schedule,” Floyd said.

Floyd said some brewers were motivated by the disparity between unionized Anheuser-Busch workers and nonunionized Chicago workers both making Goose Island beer. In the United States, 5,300 Anheuser-Busch brewery employees belong to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, according to company Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

“That was definitely a factor,” Floyd said. “If they are (unionized), why aren’t we?”

Floyd said he never became an organizer with the union drive but was an active supporter. But he also said he was not very disappointed when the drive faded away, and he left Goose Island on good terms this summer feeling “well taken care of and appreciated” by the brewery.

‘The only way’

In early 2020, after about six months of garnering support from colleagues, organizers prepared to inform management and take the union drive public.

But the slow build turned to a frantic rush Feb. 10, 2020, when Goose Island management learned of the effort by getting hold of a flier explaining the union drive in Spanish. Organizers had aimed to go public March 12, an annual marketing holiday at Goose Island called 312 Day, a nod to its 312 Urban Wheat Ale. Suddenly, they had to accelerate their efforts.

Leaders of the union drive raced to get employees to sign cards of support, which would mandate a vote for unionization be held, according to union organizers. Within a week, nearly 60% of the potential bargaining unit did just that, declaring their intention to vote to join the Teamsters Local Union No. 705.

Goose Island responded with mandatory meetings scheduled by department to address the union drive.

In an email provided to the Chicago Tribune calling for a March 4, 2020, meeting of marketing employees, a supervisor said he wanted to “freely and openly discuss the pros and cons” of unionizing.

According to the email, topics would include “the ultimate goal (of) unionizing,” “what do the teamsters have to gain from us vs. what do we have to gain from them” and “can marketing achieve their goals without a union?”

At a meeting of bartenders at the Fulton Street taproom, according to Vasquez, Ahsmann said he wasn’t opposed to unions in general, but one wasn’t needed at Goose Island because issues could be worked on together. He said much of what union organizers promised their co-workers wasn’t true, she said.

During one of two late-February meetings at the Clybourn pub, according to union organizers, workers made a point to arrive together, dressed in black to show solidarity. Several managers showed up on behalf of the company — along with Goose Island founder John Hall, who no longer runs Goose Island, but remains a mythic figure in the brewery’s storytelling.

Hall’s appearance was especially jarring, said Jonah Fried, a union organizer who worked at the pub for two years. Hall was silent for most of the meeting, sipping a beer, Fried said. But near the end, he spoke up.

“The moment that sits with me to this day was John making an impassioned argument that unions are not right for Goose Island and if we unionized, the pub would close down,” Fried said.

Vasquez said it was an uneasy meeting and grew heated on both sides. But she said it was also encouraging.

“We felt even more sure of what we were doing,” she said. “We knew there were things we deserved that they weren’t giving us and they were buckling down on that. The only way we’d get those things was through a union.”

The company knew which buttons to push to win workers back, “whether it was people hoping to get promoted or favors that had been done in the past, such as use of event space for personal reasons,” said Sarah Hurd, who worked in the Fulton Street taproom and took a prominent role in organizing.

Gradually, some people began asking for their cards back, according to union organizers. The leaders of the union drive tried to hold on to the momentum they had felt just a couple weeks earlier, they said.

The brewery also became more generous, including $312 bonuses for employees on 312 Day. For some workers, it was the first bonus they had received at Goose Island, union organizers said. They said they viewed the money as a bid to placate workers.

For those at the heart of the union drive, according to organizers, work became increasingly unpleasant.

“It was a gradual slide into more and more of a tense work environment,” Fried said. “There was more and more scrutiny over the way you spent your time, more scrutiny over potential slip-ups, and people waiting for you to make a mistake.”

Vasquez said she and other union leaders began to be “followed around on our shifts” by managers in the Fulton Street taproom.

“It was terrible,” Vasquez said. “A lot of moments I felt righteous, and others I felt really scared.”

Efforts squashed

In mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down in all directions.

Goose Island shuttered its two Chicago locations March 16, 2020, in line with a statewide closing order. Both launched to-go service within about a week, which would continue into summer.

With the exception of essential brewery workers, most employees were ordered to work from home, or furloughed and given what former employees said were $300 weekly stipends for about four months.

“When it became clear we’d be staying home because of the pandemic, the unsaid truth was our effort was done,” Fried said.

The June layoffs happened via phone calls and video meetings with various managers. Word spread quickly among workers in the union drive. Vasquez, Hurd and Mathie were all cut.

“The most horrific experience of my life was hearing from all my friends, saying, ‘Yeah, I just got the call,’ ‘I just got the call,’ ‘I just got the call,’” Vasquez said.

Vasquez said she believes the company targeted layoffs toward people key to the union drive, including her. Though she held multiple jobs at Goose Island — and was promoted to work better-paying shifts at the Fulton Street taproom — managers categorized her as a “shift lead” at the Clybourn pub when evaluating who to lay off, placing her where the cuts were mostly concentrated, she said.

“It seemed to me they had designed a system with a goal of being sure I did not have a job at the end of it,” Vasquez said.

Goose Island considered “current business needs and an employee’s years of service and availability” in deciding who to lay off, the company’s now-former head of human resources wrote in an email to Vasquez provided to the Tribune. But people with less experience and expertise were kept on board, according to Vasquez.

Hurd said her own layoff was plausible because she had worked at the company for less than a year. But Vasquez’s dismissal made her suspicious.

“Grace was the best tour guide and best bartender at the whole brewery,” Hurd said. “All the bartenders and tour guides were impressed with her work ethic and rapport with customers. She was just really good at what she did.”

Fried said he was not laid off in June 2020, but quit after the layoffs, which he called “a big blow to my faith in the company.”

“I still don’t understand what on earth they used to make those decisions,” he said.

Fried said he believes Goose Island “did whatever math they needed to behind closed doors to get the highest number of union organizers.”

In the months that followed, Goose Island reopened both its Chicago locations for sit-down business and began rehiring at the Clybourn pub. The close-knit group of union supporters drifted to different states and jobs outside the industry, propelled by the shifting pandemic.

Some former employees said they briefly considered filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board over what they believed were union-busting tactics, but felt there was little point after the drive petered out and they no longer worked for the company.

Laid-off employees said they were offered severance calculated by job and time with the company in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement. Some signed. Others, including Vasquez, Mathie and Hurd, did not, they said, partly because they felt the payouts were small — less than $100 in some cases.

Mathie said she also declined because she was “very, very much put off” by the offer and the silence it could have bought.

“I felt gross that they were asking me to do that for a thing, in my mind, they had sort of won,” she said. “If I can take away anything from it, it’s the ability to tell people what happened.”

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