Along with restaurants and bar workers who found their voices last year to go public with workplace mistreatment, the employees at Chicago’s famed Goose Island Beer Co. say they attempted to unionize their workplace. The Tribune spoke with seven former workers involved in the effort that began in 2019. Of that seven, five were laid off.
Current and former Goose Island workers told the Tribune that organizing efforts started smoothly and by 2020, around 75 percent of the brewery’s union-eligible workforce supported the idea. But just as employee organizers were about to publicize their campaign, they say management caught wind of unionization plans.
Workers say the brewery used the financial strain caused by the pandemic as an excuse to target union activists. It’s unclear how many layoffs the brewery made. Estimates claim at least 20 workers were let go at Goose Island’s Clybourn brewpub, Fulton Street taproom, and Philadelphia brewpub. The layoffs were in June 2020, three months after Illinois halted indoor dining due to the pandemic.
Nearly 60 percent of Goose Island’s potential bargaining unit signed cards in support of a plan to join Teamsters Local Union No. 705. They say the company responded by holding mandatory gatherings, often referred to as captive-audience meetings, ostensibly to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of union membership. One meeting was attended by Goose Island founder John Hall, a looming figure in the brewing world who in 2011 sold the brand to Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser’s parent company) for $38.8 million. Hall reportedly told workers that if they unionized, it would force the Clybourn Avenue brewpub to close — a claim that union advocates say is a common tactic to discourage labor organizing.
The 33-year-old Clybourn restaurant has been searching for an identity since a gut remodel in 2017, a revamp that came after Budweiser reluctantly bought the restaurant in 2016, separate from its purchase of the brewery in 2011. There’s also been a growing fissure between the pub’s workers and those at the Fulton taproom. Chief among their concerns were pay discrepancies: base pay for Fulton Street bartenders is reportedly three times the hourly rate for their Clybourn counterparts — a chasm that only grows after adding in tips.
The pay gap made pub workers feel “like second-class citizens,” and that resentment festered due to incidents like a 2018 holiday party where Clybourn Avenue employees had to serve their Fulton Street colleagues. Workers also described hours of unpaid, off-the-clock work, as well as concerns over safety, such as a poisonous carbon dioxide leak in a keg room that went undetected until an employee reported lightheadedness. That same employee also alleges that in 2019, a manager encouraged her to accept the advances of a patron who tried to kiss her, and later gave the patron her cell phone number.
Furloughs and layoffs in the hospitality industry were not unusual in the first year of the pandemic when operators first began to grapple with fears over safety and economic viability. While those who spoke with the Trib acknowledge the financial pressure facing the company, some allege that management used the crisis as an opportunity to terminate organizers and stymie organizing efforts.
Other local hospitality employees have also turned to unions over a litany of workplace concerns. Pro-union employees at Colectivo Coffee, a Wisconsin-based cafe chain with five Chicago area cafes, spent more than a year locked in a contentious labor battle with management. In August, union advocates prevailed and ultimately created the unionized workforce at a U.S. coffee chain.
Founded in 1988, Goose Island is Chicago’s oldest brewery and among its best-known. The brand has hoards of passionate fans across the country, many drawn by a near-obsessive fascination with its annual Bourbon County Brand Stout lineup, but it still strives to hold a local audience with special locally-themed brews like Sox Golden Ale.
Goose Island management released this statement:
The employees at Goose Island are instrumental to our unique culture that we are so proud of. We have always respected our employees’ right to decide for themselves about union representation. Working together, we’ve been able to continuously brew standout craft beer, give back to our community, grow Goose Island and create something special.
The global pandemic significantly impacted our business, and like many others, we were forced to rethink the way we operate. In June 2020, we took steps to combine the Goose Island and Virtue Cider sales and marketing functions into one unified team to share expertise, maximize resources and focus on opportunities that will allow our business to adapt to the changing industry. We also said goodbye to some team members at our Brewhouse and Taproom in Chicago and Philadelphia Brewhouse, which has since closed permanently.
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. We continue to be grateful for their contributions to the company during their time here.