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Workers at Minneapolis’s Surly Brewing Company Say the Brewer Is Busting Their Union

Two days after Surly’s beer hall workers went public with a union campaign, management announced it would be closing the location indefinitely. The Minneapolis company says the shutdown was in the works for weeks — a claim workers say is absurd.

Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis. (Surly Brewing Co. / Facebook)

Minneapolis service workers are in the midst of an organizing wave. Tattersall Distilling, Spyhouse Coffee Roasters, Surly Brewing Company, Lawless Distilling Co., and Stilheart Distillery & Cocktail Lounge have all gone union this summer, affiliating with United Here! Local 17, a Twin Cities hospitality union with around six thousand members.

While each shop is in varying stages of achieving union recognition, Surly’s workers are in the tightest spot.

Last Monday, Surly workers informed management of their intent to unionize, citing safety concerns related to the pandemic, as well as recent wage and benefit losses, as reasons that led front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house workers to organize together. Two days later, Surly publicly announced it will be indefinitely closing its beer hall beginning November 2.

“Ownership is going to do what they’re going to do, I just ask them to think about all of the lives that they’re affecting in this process,” says Jacob Ruff, a Surly worker, of the company’s response to unionization. He says when workers gathered at the beer hall last Monday to inform management of their intent to unionize, their bosses not only declined to grant the union voluntary recognition, but turned their backs on them and their Unite Here! union representative.

“When our rep tried giving them a card with workers’ rights on it, they just flat out refused to take it. Then they turned their back and walked away,” says Ruff.

As for the announced shutdown two days later, workers say they were given no notice before it went public.

“I checked my email [on Wednesday morning] and had gotten the same email as everybody else,” says Ruff, referring to a notice the company sent out to all of the beer hall’s kitchen and hospitality staff to comply with Minnesota’s Worker’s Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires plants to give workers sixty-days’ notice before layoffs — over one hundred people will lose their jobs when Surly shuts down. Twenty minutes later, says Ruff, Surly publicly announced that they are closing the beer hall.

In a statement announcing the closure, Surly says the timing of the “gut-wrenching decision” was “not ideal,” but was “put in place weeks ago.” The company cites economic pressures, writing that “Since the start of the pandemic, Beer Hall revenues are down 82% compared with the same period last year. If the Beer Hall remained open, Surly would lose at least another three quarters of a million dollars this winter.”

Surly’s workers see it differently, suspecting last-minute union-busting. Asked whether they believe the shutdown was retaliation for their organizing, they say: definitely.

“There have been people that just started a week or so ago and never was it mentioned to them that there could be an imminent shutdown. There were hiring for a management position as recently as the last week of August,” says Justin Warner, a Surly worker. He notes that management even interviewed a potential hire later on the day unionization was announced, suggesting that if closure was in the works, at least some members of management had not been informed.

“Today Surly Brewing Company took disgusting and illegal actions to permanently lay-off its entire hospitality staff starting Nov. 2nd. This is CLEAR retaliation for them forming a Union,” said Unite Here! Local 17 in a tweet last Wednesday.

“Why isn’t Surly advocating for us? Why are they throwing half their staff out of work after taking a PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan? Why now, after they got millions of dollars?” asks Ruff, referencing the company’s recent receipt of government funds intended to aid businesses in keeping workers on payroll during the coronavirus pandemic.

“People are very angry. It’s really disappointing. We work so hard there, and it’s really devastating that they would do this,” says Megan Caswell, a Surly worker.

Following news of Surly’s imminent closure, workers held a rally on Sunday. Caswell estimates 300–400 people joined them in picketing the beer hall.

“The public really showed up to support us. It made me feel hope, a lot of hope,” she says.

They’re planning more public events, says Warner, who adds that “we are considering any and all actions to put pressure on Surly” to recognize the union. “Nothing is off the table.”

“That term ‘family’ is thrown around a lot in restaurants, often by management and in a rather abusive way, but we mean it,” says Ruff, reflecting on how unionizing has affected his coworkers. “We are Surly, that’s what we’re realizing. We’re coming into our own: we, not the owners, are Surly.”