A vote to unionize a Vancouver craft brewery has been defeated, but could be a sign of what's to come in the growing craft beer industry according to the B.C. Federation of Labour.
Currently no independently owned smaller breweries are unionized in B.C.
On Dec. 1 workers at Parallel 49 Brewing voted 16-4 against joining the Brewery Winery & Distillery Workers Union - Local 300.
"It was very, very tense," former employee Kaelen Unrau told The Early Edition's Jesara Sinclair describing the day of the vote.
"It was tense in the sense where no one's talking about it, because you can't talk about it. Employers can't talk to you. You don't want to talk to other people because you don't want to out yourself as being pro-union or anti-union, because that could cause animosity among your colleagues, so leading up to that 3 o' clock vote it was this silent tension."
Unrau was laid off when a new packaging machine was installed at the brewery. His last day of work was the day of the vote. The union fought Unrau's dismissal, and he was given a severance package. He said he's satisfied with that outcome and holds no bitterness towards the brewery.
The vote included the brewery's brewers, machinists, mechanics and chemists, as well as workers in packaging and distribution. 20 full-time employees were eligible to vote.
Vote triggered by growing pains
The defeat came as a surprise to one employee who helped organize the vote.
11 workers signed union cards within 48 hours after the vote was launched.
"We took the two day card signing as a sign of success and immediately moved forward from there," he said. The employee still works at the brewery and the CBC agreed not to use his name over fears of losing his job.
"There was a lot of change of hearts on that day, because we had spoken to many people. The weekend before we had rallied and had get-togethers and meetings and whatnot and the amount of people who were big pro-supporters was enough likely to win that vote."
The vote was months in the works. In September, a small group of employees started to look at forming a union to address ongoing concerns with management.
"We were in a constant struggle with our owners and our management because we had grown to a size where they were businessmen and they sat in our office all day and they never saw what was happening on the production floor," said the employee who was one of the organizers.
The employee said wages were also at issue. He said workers at Parallel 49 are paid well below other breweries in B.C., and said many employees start at minimum wage.
The brewery itself has experienced huge growth since it opened just over two years ago. This summer, it installed a new bottling machine and a few weeks ago, a new packaging machine was installed.
The employee said while millions of dollars were being spent on equipment, those same investments weren't being made in workers.
"The entire thing is based around growing pains. The brewery was growing so fast, and new infrastructure was being established and they just couldn't keep up," the employee said.
"An investment in your employees is, I feel, as important as an investment in a new machine."
Skepticism over union's approach to craft beer
The union organizers went to the B.C. Federation of Labour, which connected them with Brewery Winery & Distillery Workers Union - Local 300.
The union also represents employees at Molson Brewery, Granville Island Brewing — which is owned by Molson, Okanagan Springs Brewery — which is owned by Sleeman, and Pacific Western Brewing.
Craft breweries in B.C. have unionized in the past. Granville Island Brewing workers joined the union before the company was bought out, but the employee said in the latest wave of craft beer, this was uncharted territory.
Workers told the CBC there was some skepticism about the union, especially in light of comments a union representative made in the media in September, denouncing craft beer as a fad after layoffs at Vancouver's Molson Brewery.
"I think there was a feeling — even hearing these union reps talk to us before the vote — that their approach to the beer industry was very different than most people working at Parallel 49," said Unrau.
"It seemed like a lot of these people at the union viewed beer as just another way to pay the bills, and I think that really did miss out on a big aspect of why craft breweries are so amazing in the first place."
Another employee, Erik Wessel said he never supported the union, and said he was worried about changes a unionized workforce could bring about if the vote passed.
"I really don't think that a union would ever work in any craft brewing situation. It think it takes the craft out of craft brewing, and you just become a Molson," he said.
The employee, who was part of the push to unionize workers, acknowledged there were issues with the union.
"Unfortunately for us, brewery unions are not a big thing. It's not like there were multiple ones to choose from," he said.
The union did not return CBC's request for comment.
Employees hopeful for improvements
On the day of the union vote, both the employer and the union had separate 15-minute meetings with employees. Unrau said in the meeting with the employer, the brewery's owners acknowledged the mistakes they had made.
Under B.C. labour law, they were not allowed to make specific promises to employees, but Unrau said the message was that things would change.
"The big promises that they made before the vote was basically, we want to know what you guys want, what you guys need, how things affect you."
The worker, who was one of the original organizers, said he's hopeful the message was genuine.
"I'm waiting to see if people will hold up their word, but so far I can already tell you that communication has improved. There are plans in place to negotiate with us," he said.
Workers who support the union have six months to re-launch the vote, and the employee who was one of the union organizers said if workers don't see real change, he expects more may start to warm up to the idea of being represented by a union.
More union votes possible in craft beer industry
B.C. Federation of Labour President Irene Lanzinger said union votes aren't always successful on the first try, and she expects workers in the craft beer industry to someday be represented by unions.
"Once you begin to organize in a sector that often leads to more organizing in that sector. As a growing industry, this is a good area for union organizers to work on," she said.
The craft beer industry has seen huge growth in B.C. in the past 5 years.
According to the B.C. Brewers Guild, small breweries currently hold 21 per cent of the market share, up from 9 per cent in 2009.
"This is something that happened with growth, and it's something that is going to happen to another brewery sooner or later," the employee involved in organizing the union told CBC.
"I guarantee it. I guarantee that there will be a union formed at some brewery, somewhere, some day. We're not going to all stay small forever."
Parallel 49 Brewing declined to comment.
To hear more about the vote to unionize at Parallel 49 Brewing, click the audio labelled: Parallel 49 craft brewery union vote result of 'growing pains.'