Workers tap into community support, put Surly on notice: ‘We’re not done here’

Credit Surly for this much: the union-busting craft brewer inspired one raucous Labor Day-weekend rally, drawing nearly 200 people into the streets outside its destination beer hall in Minneapolis today.

Workers at the gleaming, new complex in Prospect Park went public Monday with their plans to unionize. Two days later they received layoff notices, and Surly owner Omar Ansari, citing COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants and bars, announced the beer hall would close indefinitely Nov. 2.

Today, workers like Megan Caswell served Ansari with notice that they aren’t going away quietly, even if the beer hall is.

“We’re not done here,” the bartender said. “We’re still fighting.”

Caswell and her co-workers aren’t fighting alone.

UNITE HERE Local 17, the union representing more than 6,000 Twin Cities hospitality workers, has pledged legal action against Surly. And today’s demonstration followed a steady barrage of social-media backlash to Surly’s announcement.

Workers and supporters marched along the public sidewalk bordering Surly’s makeshift beer garden, which steadily emptied as the protest swelled. Later, demonstrators shifted their route to extend through a crosswalk, halting cars and bicycles en route to the beer hall’s parking lot and turning dozens away.

Labor Day weekend in the Twin Cities usually brings working people of all stripes together for picnics and parades, canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The scene outside Surly offered a reminder of the history – and ongoing struggle for justice at work – behind the holiday.

Members of several Twin Cities labor unions jumped at the opportunity to celebrate by showing some solidarity.

“What better way to spend Labor Day?” asked Kyle Karr, a member of Minneapolis Fire Fighters Local 82, marching in his bunker gear.

Karr previously worked in the food-service industry.

“I’ve been in their position before, and they’re looking for the same thing I’ve been granted as part of a large, national union,” Karr said. “We’re all workers at the end of the day, and we all want the same things.”

Members of the Minnesota Nurses Association, United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees, St. Paul Federation of Educators and other unions also wore their union colors to the demonstration.

“Like any other workers, Surly workers are fighting for a voice on the job, a voice in their safety and a voice in their welfare,” said Mat Terwilliger, business agent for Local 13 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees. “I’m going to support that anywhere it happens.”

Ali Fuhrman, president of AFSCME Local 2822, which represents Hennepin County clerical and related workers, said it’s particularly exciting to see union organizing happen at places like Surly. Research shows workers in the food-service industry face greater vulnerability to wage theft and sexual harassment, and less than 2% of workers nationwide are represented by unions.

“I’m sure all the other breweries and distilleries are happy Surly is doing this,” Fuhrman said of the company’s end run around its workers’ union drive. “I think momentum is starting to swing. It’s really exciting to see.”

The community support hasn’t gone unnoticed by Surly workers.

Natalie Newcomer, a former server who was fired by Surly on Aug. 5 – in retaliation for union organizing, she believes – said it was disheartening for workers to see their concerns about safety, economic security and customer experience dismissed so casually by management. But today’s rally, she said, is a reminder that the fight is worth it.

“It’s been really beautiful to watch the community get together and fight for what is right,” Newcomer said. “Our family has only grown stronger. And that’s an awesome feeling.”

Any regrets?

“Absolutely not,” said Caswell, who joined the rally after finishing a shift behind the bar. “I’ve never organized anything in my life – maybe my sock drawer. It’s been a real education, and I would do it again in a second if need be.”

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