Widmer Brewery goes union


One of Portland’s oldest craft breweries is now Oregon’s only union brewer, and one of the few in the entire craft brewing industry. Workers at Widmer Brothers voted 38-8 to affiliate with Teamsters Local 162 in a recent election held outside the purview of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

All 54 workers in the brewing, packaging, microbiology and quality assurance jobs at the brewery on North Russell Street are now part of the Portland-based Teamsters local, which also represents workers at UPS, DHL, several Portland-area beer distributors, and more.

Widmer joins just a handful of craft breweries around the country with union representation. Others on the list include Anchor Brewing (ILWU Local 6) in San Francisco, Fair State Cooperative Brewing (UNITE HERE Local 17) in Minneapolis, Headless Mumby Brewing Company (Sheet Metal Local 66) in Olympia, Washington, and August Schell Brewing (United Steelworkers District 11) in New Ulm, Minnesota.

Widmer brewery worker Josh Dunnivant called Teamsters Local 162 last fall, saying he and his coworkers were organizing. From the first conversation Dunnivant had with Teamsters officers, Local 162 organizer Bobby Rispler said one thing was clear: “This guy knows his stuff.” Dunnivant had started assessing the potential bargaining unit and building a list of workers, and he explained what was driving the union interest.

Widmer in 2008 merged with fellow craft brewery Redhook to form the Craft Brew Alliance, which brought in more small brewers in the years that followed. Beverage giant Anheuser Busch (AB) InBev owned a minority stake in the craft brew organization, and in 2020 AB InBev acquired the rest of the shares for $220 million, becoming the full owner of Widmer, along with Redhook, Omission and Kona, a Hawaiian craft brewery.

The AB InBev acquisition lit an organizing spark at Widmer.

Workers said wages had stagnated over the years, there were problems with how workers were scheduled, and the company’s health care benefits were subpar. And when AB InBev took over, workers felt they had even less of a voice in their own shop.

Rispler says none of the workers described it being a bad place to work. But the transition from a small, locally owned brewery to being part of a massive, multinational corporation drove talk of a union.

“When you’re playing with a corporation at that level, representation can be a good idea,” he said.

By the time Dunnivant called the Teamsters last fall, he had already laid the groundwork for the union election. In fact, he and fellow organizing committee members had already secured 70% support for unionizing, with cards signed, all without management learning of the effort, meaning there hadn’t been an opportunity for union busting.

Workers on the organizing committee began meeting with Rispler (who says he learned quickly that, when organizing brewers, “If you want to speak their language, it requires that you have a beer in your hand,”) at other craft breweries, to discuss their strategy.

After Teamsters Local 162 got the call, the local got in touch with Jeff Padellaro, who heads up the national Teamsters Brewery, Bakery & Soft Drink Conference. The national conference is very familiar with AB InBev, representing about 6,000 workers across all 12 Anheuser-Busch breweries in the U.S.

With the strong worker support, Padellaro in early January contacted AB InBev and requested the company provide card check recognition, meaning the union is certified if more than 50% of workers sign cards expressing support. It was the first the company heard of the union campaign, and it was certainly a long-shot request – while common in public employer union campaigns, card check is rare in the private sector.

The company declined, so Local 162 prepared to file for an election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But just before filing, the company contacted the union asking about holding a private election, one that’s not conducted through the NLRB. Local 162 came to a private election agreement with the company, limiting public attention on the election but also limiting the company’s ability to run an anti-union campaign.

Both parties signed the election agreement on Jan. 10, and they held the election just three weeks later, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. When the ballots were counted, workers had voted 38-8 to join the union.

Rispler says Local 162 is currently preparing bargaining surveys to go out to the new members. The local will have assistance from the national Teamsters officers, who have long experience bargaining with Anheuser-Busch, as they prepare to negotiate a first contract.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Read more