After a nine-month union drive, Creature Comforts Brewery workers voted 21-32 against receiving union representation through the Brewing Union of Georgia on October 3.
Creature Comforts issued a statement saying that they are “pleased, but not surprised” by the vote which had an impressive 90% voter turnout. The company believes their workers voted “to affirm the incredible culture and company that we have already built together” which has “industry-leading benefits, competitive wages” and “numerous perks” for employees.
Creature Comforts declined to voluntarily recognize the Brewing Union when it first formed back in January and they’ve fought against unionization all year. To that end, the company hired Littler Mendelson, a notorious anti-union law firm also employed by Starbucks and Amazon. By making a technical objection to the size of the union’s bargaining unit, which was quite broad and included most workers in the company regardless of position, management was able to delay the union vote for several months.
These critical months allowed Creature Comforts to target union supporters, spread misinformation, intimidate employees and grind down the spirit of solidarity among workers, according to Brewing Union steering committee member Spencer Britton. He told APN that brewery workers feared they would lose out on opportunities for promotion or that they might even be fired if they became involved in the union.
“A constant concern raised when people were asked about participation in organizing was that they were a family’s primary income source,” Spencer said. “They feared that Creature management would either fire them or prevent them from future career growth if they were involved with any union activity.”
Of the five steering committee members who formed the union in January, only one remains with Creature Comforts today just nine months later. Some steering committee members quit their jobs voluntarily, but others were fired – including Britton himself. The company accused Britton of making violent threats at the workplace and placed him on a 10-week suspension before finally firing him in June.
Britton denies that he made any violent threats. Instead, he claims he was fired in retaliation for his involvement with the union. The Brewing Union included this incident in an unfair labor practice claim which they filed against Creature Comforts earlier this year, one of several. Britton was not the only one who was allegedly pushed out. He says that over ten union supporters have left the company in the past year due to a hostile work environment.
If true, that’s potentially enough to have changed the outcome of the election.
If the union election had taken place in February or March, as would have been the typical process, the outcome may very well have been different. As such, the Brewer’s Union filed an official objection to the election that took place on October 3 with the National Labor Relations Board and is still hoping that their union will eventually be recognized by Creature Comforts.
Because they are challenging the election, Creature Comforts has accused the union of not respecting the employees’ wishes in this matter. The company says they “are confident we will overcome their challenges and that our team members’ votes will ultimately be honored.”
Likewise, the company rejects the idea that they have a hostile work environment at Creature Comforts. In their statement, they stressed that they acknowledge “the needs and concerns of all our team members and recognize each one as a person and not just a role.” It’s also important to note that Creature Comforts is a certified Benefit Corporation. That means they have met a rigorous standard demonstrating that they offer social and environmental benefits to their communities.
As such, they say they are committed “to putting stakeholders above shareholders” and to being “a force for good in the world.”
Despite accusations of union-busting, the fact remains that of the 53 workers who participated in the election, over 60% of them voted against being represented by the Brewing Union of Georgia. Why did they vote no?
According to one worker who spoke with APN on the condition of anonymity, it’s because the union was disorganized, didn’t communicate well with employees and felt like a foreign third-party rather than as a genuine voice of the workers. This perception led them to worry that the union might not be democratically-run and that it might grow out of their control and seek to extract money in dues while not providing much in exchange.
In one document, the lead organizer of the Brewing Union, Joseph Carter, was listed as both the president and secretary of the organization. Britton says the document was filed in error and that Carter never possessed or even sought out either role, but this discovery added to concerns that the union actually sought to take control away from workers instead of promoting worker power. Since Carter has never worked at Creature Comforts, seeing him listed as president also added to the concern that the union was an outside entity that did not have the interests of the workers at heart.
This employee also says the union was overly secretive on more than one occasion and did not share important documents with workers willingly. For example, the union did not even share its constitution with all Creature Comforts employees until just a few weeks before the vote. When it was finally revealed, the draft constitution seemed to confirm their worst fears. It was poorly written and some felt it was inadequate. It also had provisions that seemed to concentrate power in the hands of an unknown executive committee.
Britton said the constitution was a placeholder and would be completely rewritten in the near future with in-depth member participation, but that was not enough to satisfy those who felt they did not have a voice in Britton’s organization.
Furthermore, this worker felt the union never adequately explained their demands to all Creature Comforts workers and they never successfully made the case why workers should vote yes. The time lag between the union’s formation and the workers’ vote may have contributed to this. Workers who were hired after the union drive began may not have known why some of the previous employees (now considered to be a “third-party”) had wanted the union originally.
The union put off some important organization-building work until after the union vote, such as crafting an adequate constitution that would protect the rights of members. It now appears that this was a mistake, since it was a factor that led at least one worker to vote no on union representation.
As it stands now, the union drive at Creature Comforts is likely over, although there is a possibility that the National Labor Relations Board could rule that the brewery violated fair labor practices. In that case, the board could force Creature Comforts to recognize the union automatically, or they could schedule another election.