Minneapolis & St. Paul service industry’s union fight: Inside the pro-labor push.

Minneapolis & St. Paul service industry’s union fight: Inside the pro-labor push.

On September 19, Spyhouse Coffee workers went on strike.

“Spyhouse puts the cough in coffee—get your union busting off me!” employees chanted, marching in front of the local chain’s Broadway and Central location in northeast Minneapolis. Their signs were scrawled with “I spy union busting” and “We like our coffee like we like our union: strong!” Traffic slowed through the prominent intersection as drivers rubbernecked at the commotion, many leaning on their horns in solidarity or shouting encouragement out of rolled-down windows.

The rally was the culmination of weeks of conflict between Spyhouse staff and ownership. About 34 employees announced plans to unionize in August, joining a local labor push that includes Tattersall Distilling (which just became America’s first unionized craft distillery) and Fair State Brewing Cooperative (which just became America’s first unionized microbrewery).

Across Minnesota and the country, union membership is at historic lows. And the restaurant industry has had some of the lowest rates of union membership—roughly 1.8 percent, according to a 2014 study.

But the defining, ongoing events of 2020—COVID-19 and the uprising following the murder of George Floyd—have changed the hospitality industry like they have everything else. Forced to work with inadequate safety protocols on the front lines of a pandemic that’s killed 210,000-plus Americans so far, or to toil for owners who have a poor track record on social justice issues, employees are increasingly saying, “Enough.” Sister distilleries Lawless and Stilheart unionized last month. Surly Brewing Co.’s front-of-house and kitchen staff tried to, but ultimately fell short by a single vote on October 7.

Which brings us back to the Spyhouse picket line, to what organizer Sheigh Freeberg of Unite Here Local 17 called the first successful food service strike in the Twin Cities in 20 years.

“How do we feel about the boss paying a union-busting attorney thousands of dollars instead of giving his workers hazard pay?” Freeberg asked the assembled workers and supporters, to a chorus of boos (and one emphatic “Fuck that guy!”).

“We know in the city of Minneapolis, it’s not enough to say we support workers,” said City Councilor Steve Fletcher (Ward 3). “We have to actually be out on the picket line. We have to actually support workers.”

Freeberg addressed the crowd again.

“I want to ask you all something: Is having proper cleaning supplies at work too much to ask for?”


“Is being provided face masks at work too much to ask for?”


“Do we need to be out here fucking striking for these basic things?”


“It’s ridiculous!”

II. How Workers Won the Summer

In the middle of the 20th century, as U.S. union membership soared to all-time highs, you’d find unionized bars and restaurants all over the Twin Cities.

Founded nationally in 1891, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) helped organize those Minneapolis and St. Paul cooks, waiters, bartenders, and hotel workers, many of whom were working as Americans for the first time.

“We were basically a union of immigrant workers, and we were one of the first unions to allow African-Americans in,” says D. Taylor, the international president of what’s now known, after a short-lived merger with the textile union Unite, as Unite Here. “The hospitality industry—hotels, restaurants, bars—has been a gateway for immigrant workers, and still is today.”

As the labor movement absorbed gut punch after gut punch—Ronald Reagan’s hard anti-union stance, NAFTA and globalization, right-to-work laws, enduring stigmas of corruption—unionized service-industry gigs dwindled. “We grew exponentially. Then, like the rest of the labor movement, we got kicked,” Taylor says. Today, Unite Here still represents 307,000 workers in the United States and Canada, with chapters in major cities including New York City and Las Vegas. (At its peak in the ’00s, UH repped about 450,000 members.)

Unite Here’s Minnesota chapter, Local 17, has persisted through the decades, focusing its recent efforts mostly on workers at major hotels and concession stands at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and all four major sports stadiums/arenas.

“The culture of [Unite Here] is very much that they’re strong, they’re militant,” says Hamilton Nolan, a labor reporter with leftist magazine In These Times. “They are very much into continually organizing, continually having a strong culture inside the union of, ‘We are members of this union. We are going to fight for our rights. We are going to fight for our contracts. We are going to strike.’”

Sheigh Freeberg of Unite Here Local 17 called the Spyhouse strike the Twin Cities’ first successful food service strike in 20 years.

Sheigh Freeberg of Unite Here Local 17 called the Spyhouse strike the Twin Cities’ first successful food service strike in 20 years.
Bryan Frank

But, by the ’00s, local leadership had grown bureaucratic and exclusionary, reports Local 17’s Freeberg. So, in 2017, Freeberg and current chapter president Christa Mello mounted a reform campaign against their union’s “entrenched” higher-ups. They won the election soundly.

The new regime’s goals included making Local 17 “more transparent, more democratic, more member-focused,” Freeberg says. They also hoped to channel Taylor’s favorite mantra: Organize or die. (“A union is like a shark,” Taylor declares. “A shark dies if it doesn’t keep moving forward.”)

“We had the goal of organizing in hospitality areas that we had not organized in for a long time,” Freeberg says of bars, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and coffee shops. Local 17’s portfolio of around 20 union restaurants and bars already included old standbys like Mancini’s, Jax Cafe, the St. Paul Grill, the Schooner Tavern, and Jimmy’s Bar & Lounge, “but we felt like there was an opportunity there, and certainly there were people there that wanted to organize and needed a union,” he adds.

First, Local 17 had to spend 2018 and 2019 negotiating most of its hotel contracts and “strengthening and empowering” its existing ranks of around 6,000 workers, Mello says. The union did dip its toes in those underexplored food/drink waters, mostly through workers’ rights, safety, and training collaborations with nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) and the Democratic Socialists of America’s Twin Cities chapter.

Coronavirus accelerated everything.

The pandemic has hammered Unite Here on a national level, putting—at its peak—98 percent of the union’s dues-paying members out of work. Taylor reports: “We were rebuilding, we were one of the fastest-growing private-sector unions in the country… then COVID hit!”

Locally, coronavirus exacerbated the existing grievances of an already put-upon service sector while creating brand-new life-and-death ones. If low wages and a top-down hierarchy sucked before, imagine punching into that undemocratic workplace with the added chaos of messy COVID guidelines, all while dodging potentially deadly sneezes.

“We are all looking toward the winter and continued impacts of COVID-19 knowing how much our industry and our jobs are changing on the fly,” Lawless bartender Eliza Smith told CP last month. “We want a guarantee that our input will be heard.”

Service-industry workers became essential front-line workers, Mello points out, though their pay and safety protocols did not reflect that transformation.

“None of us knew COVID would hit, and that it would really have such a spark with new organizing,” she says. “Workers feel like they’ve been completely taken advantage of for years, but everything always boils up. It was kind of a perfect storm.”

The storm’s successive blasts struck quickly over the summer.

In June, workers at Tattersall Distilling in northeast Minneapolis informed ownership they’d be forming a union, a move that’d make it America’s first unionized craft distillery. Then, in August, workers at five Spyhouse Coffee locations announced their intent to unionize.

In the following weeks, workers at Surly, Lawless, Stilheart, and Fair State all joined forces with Unite Here.

“Honestly, every time something happens, I have a dozen other places reach out to me; it’s super exciting,” Freeberg says, noting that shops from all over Minnesota are making contact with Unite Here. “Coronavirus happened, and workers didn’t have the opportunity to pretend their boss cared anymore, because their bosses made it so incredibly clear that they didn’t.”

III. A Labor of Love

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tattersall got a lot of attention from a lot of publications (including this one) for quickly pivoting to hand sanitizer production. All Hands, an alcohol-based disinfectant made in cooperation with Du Nord Craft Spirits and Brother Justus, arrived at a time when you couldn’t keep Purell on shelves. They’ve provided more than 105,000 gallons to Minnesotans over the last few months, according to their website, and proceeds from sales have funded a million meals through Second Harvest Heartland.

But it wasn’t such a feel-good story for employees like Tattersall distiller Mike Appletoft. Back-of-house workers were deemed essential and were still scheduled to come in. The switch to making sanitizer was physically and emotionally taxing, and the anxiety of being exposed to the virus and unwittingly bringing it home—in Appletoft’s case, to his immuno-compromised partner—was taking a toll. Distillers at Tattersall asked for hazard pay. They were told no.

“In those conditions you start thinking to yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Appletoft says. “I didn’t feel at all supported by management, and I realized that I had never felt supported by management.” When the distillery’s front-of-house staff shared that they were planning to unionize over concerns about COVID safety and reopening the cocktail room, joining them was “a no-brainer.”

Staff at Fair State had been talking about organizing for about a year, but community manager Anna Schmitz says Tattersall going public really opened the door for those conversations by giving employees a way to bring up organizing in a way that felt natural. And watching the pandemic response from other bars, restaurants, and breweries—hours cut or added without warning, reopening plans made without input from employees—helped put their efforts into overdrive.

“It makes you realize how loosey-goosey employment is without a union, where it’s like—basically your boss can do anything. We’re in a good position at Fair State, we don’t have a boss who’s like, ‘And therefore, I will do anything!’” Schmitz says with a laugh. “But there really are not, at the end of the day, that many protections for workers if you don’t have a union.”

It’s not uncommon to see organizing efforts rocket through an industry like this; Hamilton Nolan at In These Times describes it as very much a word-of-mouth movement. But the stability, the protection, all the benefits that workers might get when they’re unionized—these things can come at a cost.

With the exceptions of Fair State, Lawless, and Stilheart, whose owners welcomed their new unions, bosses reacted with varying degrees of resistance. Tattersall and Surly came around, Freeberg says, while Spyhouse owner Christian Johnson has hired PR pros and lawyers to squash his workers, culminating with a “stunt” offer to outright sell the shops to them.

Surly, the country’s 34th-largest craft brewery, laid off 100-plus front-of-house workers days after they announced their intent to unionize, though bosses insisted the move was purely COVID-related.

At Surly, unionization efforts fell by a single vote earlier this month.

At Surly, unionization efforts fell by a single vote earlier this month.
courtesy of Surly Workers

“We anticipated some behavior on Surly’s part to discourage the union, so when [the layoffs] happened, that’s the first thing we thought of,” Surly worker Megan Caswell says. “This is clearly their attempt to fire us all and reopen with a new staff that’s not unionized. Personally, I still kind of feel that way.”

After some wrangling, Surly agreed to a union election on October 7, which ultimately fell short of authorizing the union by a single vote, mostly due to 36 workers abstaining. Unite Here vowed that Surly workers “will keep fighting in solidarity with each other.” As it stands, New Ulm-based August Schell Brewing Co. remains one of the country’s few unionized craft breweries. (Most of the macros have unions.)

“It always takes some level of bravery from the workers to do any union campaign, even in the best of conditions,” Nolan says. “In these conditions,”—that is, working in an industry where employees are still experiencing 85 percent unemployment due to the coronavirus—“it takes more bravery.”

Consider the Spyhouse situation, where Grace Erpenbach says baristas were frustrated with an array of issues. There was no response to the murder of George Floyd; there were hardly any security measures in place for COVID. After she contacted Unite Here Local 17 and employees went public with their plans to unionize, Erpenbach was called into a meeting where she says she was given a pretty clear choice: Stop the organizing, or lose your job. She opted for the latter.

About seven employees—including several managers and head roaster Tony Querio, one of the reasons Spyhouse is a nationally recognized coffee roasting company—immediately quit in solidarity. More have left since. Erpenbach doesn’t want to take all the credit, but says it was a camel’s-back situation.

The frustrating thing for her is that for all the BS, she liked working at Spyhouse. “I was there for four years,” she says. “I would have liked to be there another four years.” The union drive wasn’t done in retaliation against ownership or the other managers; they wanted a better, safer workplace.

“What it seems like people on the other side [who oppose unionization] are not thinking about as much is like, we don’t want Fair State to go out of business more than anyone,” Schmitz says. “We’re not going to do anything that’s going to cause Fair State to go out of business.”

The response to unionization there has been overwhelmingly positive: The cooperative brewery got about four times as many new customer memberships after going public than it does in a normal week. (Having voluntary recognition helps.) They already had an employee council that acted as a de facto union, and this formalizes that in a legal sense. Since it’s a cooperatively owned, progressive place, it made a lot of sense to onlookers.

But just because a brewery or distillery or coffee shop looks good from the outside, that doesn’t mean it is. “Breweries are kind of able to skate on having good vibes, basically,” Schmitz says. “That doesn’t necessarily translate to a good environment for workers.” She compares it to tech, where employee mistreatment runs rampant: Companies start small and grow more quickly than they expected to. Founders tend to be young—often it’s their first company—and before they know it, they’re running an actual business. There probably wasn’t an HR department established along the way. Processes might not be efficient or fair.

Appletoft says working in a distillery or brewery is hard work, and almost everyone you talk to in the industry complains about long hours, poor pay, and bad (or no) benefits. But it’s also rewarding work, and it’s a lot of fun.

“This is a huge, industry-wide problem,” he says. “Management takes advantage of the fact that we love what we do for a living, and that needs to change. I think the best way to accomplish this change is to organize.” All of Tattersall’s three eligible distillery workers voted to be in the union with their front-of-house coworkers.

When we spoke with Caswell at Surly last week, hours before the union effort failed, she said conversations with upper management since employees announced their intent to unionize have been a little odd, a little uncomfortable.

On the other hand, “In the five and a half years that I’ve worked there… this is the first time in all that time that they’ve ever asked my opinion on anything. So, I don’t know. It seems like it’s already working.”

IV. Beatup Big Labor’s Generational Opportunity

Labor and leftist types have a favorite graph.

Spanning 1913 through 2013, it features two roller-coastering lines—one representing U.S. union membership, the other representing the share of U.S. income concentrated among the top 10 percent. In the early years, according to numbers from the Economic Policy Institute, union membership hit just 11 percent, while wealth concentration was at 40.3 percent. From the 1940s through the 1960s, widely considered the country’s post-WWII economic heyday, the lines weave together in the low 30s. Then, we see the great union decline, which bottoms out today back around 11 percent.

The blue-blood line? It’s pushing 50 percent, a screaming indicator that we’re living in the New Gilded Age.

If there’s to be a union revival, it won’t be in manufacturing sectors, most of which have fled the U.S., and it likely won’t be spearheaded by Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, the recipients of relative golden-ticket economic realities who are now eyeballing retirement.

“The forces of inequality that have been crushing America for 40 years now are creeping up the ladder,” says Nolan. “It’s not like you get a college degree now and you’re guaranteed to make a living wage; there are people all over the country who are like, ‘This is a ripoff.’”

As those younger workers replace older ones, shifting views about worker vs. boss dynamics might come with them. New Gallup polling found that people under 35 view labor unions more favorably than older generations (ditto for socialism), and that’s being reflected in new union membership, 75 percent of which is made up of workers under 35, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research. Recent teacher strikes and unionized media outlets (L.A. Times, the New Yorker, VICE) provided additional spikes on the labor movement’s heart monitor. The new economy’s biggest, toughest nut to crack for labor could be Big Tech; “The Failure to Unionize the Tech Industry Will Eat the Labor Movement Alive,” exclaims a Nolan headline from August.

Bryan Frank

Bryan Frank

Could breweries, restaurants, and coffee shops become the new factory floor, providing liveable pay and benefits to anyone willing to work? Unite Here is betting on it.

“The labor movement has made jobs better; it’s not because companies are nicer. Manufacturing jobs used to be horrible jobs until they were unionized,” says Unite Here leader Taylor. “I think [young] folks are looking around and saying: ‘OK, we’re not getting our fair share, how can we get our fair share?’ And Local 17 and the labor movement are vehicles for those workers.”

Freeberg also sees generational attitudes as a major opportunity for labor.

“We’re not so blinded to the fact that this system is rigged: It’s rigged in favor of the rich and business owners,” says Freeberg, a Millennial. “The only way we can fix that is by coming together.”

Just 13.7 percent of Minnesota workers are union members—down from 23 percent in 1983 but still higher than the current national average of about 10 percent—though the state has a long, feisty labor history, from the “Bloody Friday” police killings of two striking Minneapolis Teamsters in 1934 to the marathon Hormel meatpacking strike in Austin from 1985-86. Unite Here leaders sound downright optimistic about Minnesota’s future.

Taylor calls Local 17’s work “exemplary,” and the chapter president, Christa Mello, says locals around the country are inquiring about how to tap youthful energy inside service-industry businesses. Freeberg admits that it has been shocking to witness the avalanche of public goodwill set off by the union announcements at Tattersall, Spyhouse, Lawless, Stilheart, Surly, and Fair State.

“A lot of people in the labor movement are talking about, ‘How can [we] use this moment to spark a new awakening?’” Nolan says. “Unionizing is really the most powerful tool people have. It’s on the shoulders of the labor union to make it happen.”

V. So… Now What?

Though times remain uncertain, Unite Here’s newest card-carrying members are pushing ahead. Fair State workers hope to start negotiations in the next few months. Employees at Lawless, Stilheart, and Tattersall are in the process of writing up their demands.

Meanwhile, Tattersall’s cocktail room hasn’t reopened. Front-of-house employees like Alice Brandt, who’s been with the distillery for five years, can only speculate about what a return would look like, and how they would protect themselves from COVID while providing the excellent hospitality they’re known for.

Still, “It feels really important to be doing this right now,” Brandt says. Even if she’s not on the floor, distillers and bottlers can benefit sooner. “I really do believe the restaurant industry could improve and innovate if there was less turnover—of staff, of restaurant concepts.” She thinks the union will keep them from having their concerns talked over or pushed aside.

“It’s interesting for people to assume that workers having a voice is a burden to the boss,” Freeberg says. “And if that’s not an indictment of our system, I don’t know what is.”

The organizer notes that it’s not only owners who’ve been hit by COVID-19—it’s immigrant cooks and single moms and college students trying to pay their way who have been thrust into an essential role without much of a support net, losing money as they put themselves at risk. In his experience, most workers aren’t looking for “massive raises” from unionization.

“Near 95 percent of what the workers who come to me are talking about? They’re talking about having a voice at work, having respect for this pandemic and a safety plan, and having respect for workers,” Freeberg says. “That’s not asking for too much. That’s not a burden.”

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