Anchor Steamed: How DSA worked to unionize an iconic craft brewery

In early 2018, five workers from Anchor Brewing Company met with organizers from DSA SF’s Labor Organizing Committee to talk about starting a union. Anchor is a San Francisco brewery, started in 1896, that’s most famous for its Steam beer and pioneering the concept of craft brewing. It’s also, at 73 workers, one of the largest manufacturing facilities in a city whose main industry these days is technology. The workers there, including a couple of DSA members, worked bad hours for low wages. This first meeting included two DSA SF labor organizers — one staffer from the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) and one rank-and-file member from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States (IATSE Local 16) — to figure out the first steps.

We pored over the information we’d gathered on the company. The organizers explained the basics of union organizing, such as the timeline and the importance of an organizing committee with one member for every 10 workers. Some of the workers present had tried to form a union before, but the union representative they met with had promised them the moon, and when he couldn’t deliver, the other workers had backed down. [Lesson learned: If you’re organizing a union, never promise anything to anyone, except for a fighting chance.]

After talking through the options, everyone wanted to go with a union that wouldn’t divide people by job and had a history of democratic member control. The workers decided that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was the best fit. It’s a fighting union on the West Coast, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal — and Anchor beer goes through their docks. The socialists involved were, of course, very familiar with the union, which had instigated the 1934 San Francisco General Strike (during which San Francisco police killed two strike supporters), and some of us remembered when it shut down the ports in protest against the Iraq War and during Occupy Wall Street.

We didn’t just dedicate ourselves to this project for the sole reason of starting a union, though. Socialist organizations have, since the McCarthy/Red Scare era, been supporters rather than partners in the labor movement. We wanted to change that and lay the foundation for an organic unity between socialists and workers who have demonstrated a huge ability to use their leverage, including shutting down all of the ports along the West Coast of the United States and Canada. 

So, before contacting the union, we laid that foundation. We spent months building the organizing committee and attending trainings from Labor Notes and local DSA organizers. This part was difficult. Anchor has a high turnover rate, which meant we’d build up a committee only to see our people be gentrified out of the Bay or forced to seek a job with a higher wage. DSA provided us office space for trainings and conversations, and the labor organizers were always ready as backup for one-on-one meetings with workers. 

For weeks, we worked on getting in touch with the organizing branch of the ILWU. We were able to reach ILWU’s organizer through our IATSE member’s connection to a rank-and-file ILWU member deeply involved in organizing. Because we’d come prepared and had spent months on focused organizing, they decided to go into the campaign with us as equal partners. The duties were split between the ILWU and DSA organizers, and over the course of the next year we met at the DSA office. Underneath red flags, among bustling campaigns for local propositions for tenant protections and homeless services, we worked on and planned the campaign side-by-side. The support and energy of the ILWU organizer was crucial to keeping momentum, as the volunteer organizers were also serving in their own unions as activists. 

In an all-volunteer organization, carefully planning an energy-intensive project like this is important. One of our organizers planned to step back as soon as the organizing committee was solid; the other worked the whole way through. Once we had about 70% confirmed union supporters, we filled out union representation authorization cards. Typically, these are the size of a small postcard and signify to the employer and the National Labor Relations Board that the employee wants to organize with a specific union.  When we went public by doing this and delivering a petition to management, DSA’s involvement ramped up with a public campaign. Leaning on our other committees’ experience in electoral canvassing, political relationships throughout the city, direct action mobilizations, social media coordination, coordinating press statements, and so on, DSA showed its capacity for this type of organizing. 

Anchor workers and DSA SF organizers coordinated a volunteer-intensive campaign that brought the chapter together and impressed the ILWU. We worked it like an electoral campaign. Alongside DSA electoral activists, we drew up canvassing lists of every bar and liquor store selling Anchor products. We printed signs designed by a DSA member, reading “WE SUPPORT ANCHOR WORKERS” with the DSA and ILWU logos side-by-side. We wrote scripts to canvass customers and bar workers and held neighborhood mobilizations each weekend to get the city on our side. 

The plan worked. Social media was flooded with pictures of working people holding our signs (and using the company’s hashtags). The company was blindsided, and Anchor workers were excited to see that their friends and neighbors had their backs. Before the campaign went public, the company posted regularly on its social media platforms. Once the campaign went public, Anchor all but surrendered its online presence to union supporters. On the day of the vote, the workers in the plant and in the bar voted for the union by overwhelming margins. Since then, more Anchor workers have joined DSA. 

Although not every union is the ILWU — famous for its democracy and robust left history — this campaign can be a model for DSA chapters across the country. We can’t be outsiders helping the labor movement; we have to be organic partners. We organized Anchor not just to form the first craft brew union in the United States but to build a partnership with a militant union. And our partnership is growing. We’re organizing more shops and fighting and strategizing alongside ILWU pet-hospital workers. 

The impact can be felt far outside the ILWU. It’s put DSA on the map as effective external organizers and solidified our place in the Bay Area labor movement. Sara Nelson, the Association of Flight Attendants president, even took notice, and contacted the new union to share some brews with workers the night before she spoke at an Oakland May Day rally.

Anchor is just the beginning. Efforts like these — campaigns spearheaded by socialist labor organizers that build democratic worker power — raise workers’ and unions’ expectations, re-teach the labor movement how to fight and win, and give us a foundation for a labor movement ready to take on the power of capital. 

May Day eve, 2019: Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants and a possible contender to lead the national AFL-CIO, met up with newly unionized Anchor Steam workers for beers at Anchor Public Taps across from the brewery.

(Photos by Otto Pippenger)