The union drive at Brother Justus Whiskey Co. started as smoothly as the Minneapolis distiller's Benedictine-style spirits: CEO Phil Steger voluntarily recognized the union in late 2021, eliminating the need for an NLRB-officiated election. Thing got rockier (not unlike the cocktail room's on-the-rocks old fashioneds) from there.
“We were very optimistic, but since then the company has really been dragging its feet," reports bartender/server/organizer Carly Dahl. "At first their strategy seemed to be almost talking us out of unionizing. That backfired pretty spectacularly—we really stuck together.”
Once that alleged strategy failed, the company shifted course and attempted to split the bargaining unit between back-of-house distillers and front-of-house service staff, Dahl says, describing it "union-busting 101." The union wouldn't break, but neither would the contract impasse; negotiations dragged past the 18-month mark on Monday. (First contracts, on average, take about 15 months to hammer out, Bloomberg Law reports.)
The 11-worker union, which falls under the umbrella of Unite Here! Local 17, claims its core demands—healthcare, retirement, unpaid parental and medical leave—have gone ignored. Dahl says simply getting the company to the bargaining table has been the biggest hurdle.
"It's basically been stonewalling: lots of delays, lots of cancellations, unanswered emails and phone calls," Dahl says, adding that contract offers have included head-scratching nondisclosure and non-compete clauses. "There was a four-month gap between meetings, and the proposals they have offered basically give us nothing. There's been no movement."
In late January, the union threatened to file an unfair labor practice charge unless the company committed to bargaining dates. They heard back from a lawyer within an hour, Dahl recalls. At an all-company meeting on February 15, workers again threatened CEO Steger with a ULP filing unless the company delivered a strong contract offer. On February 22, Brother Justus presented workers with a "non-substantive proposal," Dahl says.
The following week, the union filed that ULP charge, alleging that the company has not negotiated in good faith. Monday's most recent contract offer showed "no significant" signs of progress, according to Dahl.
"We share a desire with unionized employees to have a reasonable and fully-executed labor agreement in place," Stacy Pagano, head of marketing at Brother Justus, tells Racket in a statement. "We believe in the talent of our employees, and in the quality and innovation of our products. We want a viable and growing business so our employees can continue to work—and an environment where they enjoy working."
In 2021, Dahl told Racket that unionizing seemed prudent considering Brother Justus is "going to be growing really quickly." She wasn't exaggerating—an incoming 1,000-gallon still is anticipated to soon double production. The nine-year-old company raised $4.4 million during a round of financing that year, Twin Cities Business reports. Best Buy CEO Corie Barry—whose $12 million annual compensation is 394 times larger than the median Best Buy worker’s—serves on the Brother Justus board. "Hundreds" of smaller investors expect returns, Dahl says, and executive compensation remains generous.
The Twin Cities craft beverage unionization wave that first swelled in 2020 appears to have mostly fallen flat. Things are reportedly bleak at Tattersall, the country's first unionized craft distillery. Union campaigns outright failed at Spyhouse Coffee and Surly Brewing Co., while other shops that were successfully organized by Unite Here! Local 17—Du Nord Craft Spirits, Lawless Distilling, and Stilheart Distillery—still don't appear on the hospitality union's roster. (Jessica Roe, an employment lawyer who was deployed by Spyhouse's old ownership, is representing Brother Justus during negotiations, Dahl reports.)
"People think winning the union is the hard part, but a lot of union-busting takes place after recognition," Dahl says. "A lot of these fights end up where we are now."
As explored in this recent Racket feature, many craft businesses trumpet progressive platforms that don't always vibe with unionizing workforces. Brother Justus is no exception: The company claims its booze brand "embodies [the] belief[s]" of its founder, Steger, who purportedly, "lived in a monastery, served the homeless and desperate migrant workers, smuggled medical supplies into war zones, and helped preserve ancient manuscripts in some of the world’s most dangerous places."
On Friday, the "frustrated" Brother Justus union will take its contract fight to the shop floor during St. Patrick's Day. Inside the cocktail room at 3300 Fifth St. NE., workers will stage a "Pack the Bar" solidarity event from 6 to 8:30 p.m., during which sympathetic customers are encouraged to wear union gear, tag photos to Brother Justus social accounts, and order special adult shamrock shakes.
"They're not giving us anything to work with, really," Dahl says. "So, in response, OK, let's involve the community and see what they think. The best option is to throw a party: Tell them having union whiskey in the community is important to you."
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed the brand's "beliefs" to Brother Justus, who was an actual Prohibition-era Minnesota monk. In fact, the copy describes CEO Phil Steger.