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Workers at Duluth’s Vikre Distillery Are Unionizing

The union drive just went public.


A future union shop?

The union murmurs began in earnest last year inside Duluth's Vikre Distillery, where informal chats over drinks evolved into organized gatherings. Eventually, the 20+ person staff reached out to Unite Here Local 17, the Minneapolis-based hospitality union that represents around 6,000 Minnesota workers.

"I was all for it. It was exciting to me," says Vikre bartender Dan Trewartha-Weiner. "I was fortunate to grow up in a very pro-labor household.”

That sentiment spread among his fellow workers, the "vast majority" of whom, according to union officials, have signed membership cards with Unite Here. The fledging bargaining unit announced itself Tuesday to Vikre's co-owners, Emily and Joel Vikre. Those same officials tell Racket the meeting "went well," though the Vikres are opting for an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board rather than voluntary recognition. Should the worker yeas outweigh the nays, blammo—the first unionized craft beverage shop in northern Minnesota. Front-of-house and production workers would all fall under the union umbrella. (We reached out to the Vikres for comment, but didn't immediately hear back.*)

Vikre worker grievances, according to Trewartha-Weiner, should sound familiar to anyone who has followed the local surge of craft booze unionization: wages, insurance, sick time, and scheduling. Launched in 2012, Vikre goes to great lengths to describe its "triple bottom line" approach to business—people, profit, planet. Included in that formula is talk of living wages, benefits for full-timers, and "a workplace that feels like a family," but Trewartha-Weiner reports that wages have not kept up with Duluth's soaring cost of living. (Click here to revisit our recent deep-dive into what happens when progressive ownership meets unionizing workforces.) He says scheduling is especially relevant during the "winter blues" months at Vikre, when hours are tough to come by as tourists favor less-frigid environs.

“Duluth is a tourist town," Trewartha-Weiner says matter-of-factly. And Vikre is located at its tourism epicenter, just steps from Canal Park's iconic Aerial Lift Bridge.

"I'm thrilled that the workers at Vikre Distillery are bringing the craft beverage unionizing wave to Duluth," says Sheigh Freeberg, an organizer with Unite Here Local 17. "This is the first hospitality organizing that's happened in Duluth for over 10 years and we expect this to only be the beginning."

His union is bullish on the organizing prospects in Duluth. The city's shifting, Rust Beltian industry dynamics signal the same challenges and opportunities the popular, feisty, yet historically tiny U.S. labor movement has confronted since manufacturing started disappearing decades ago.

"Hospitality makes up a double-digit percentage of the Duluth workforce; these workers, hit hard by the COVID crisis, are fighting to survive," Freeberg says. "Vikre employees are setting a new standard for the industry by unionizing with Unite Here."

Trewartha-Weiner knows the process won't be a cakewalk. He says his colleagues are well aware of alleged anti-union retaliation at places like Surly Brewing, Tattersall Distilling, and, most recently, Brother Justus.

“I don’t expect anything too terribly negative," he says of the anticipated response from Vikre bosses. "We have owners that, all things considered, have treated us fairly well. They’re relatively progressive… I expect there to be a little bit of shock, but I’m hoping and expecting things to go relatively smoothly.”

Unite Here Local 17 has bet big on the craft service industry in recent years, yielding wins (Fair State Brewing), losses (Surly, Spyhouse Coffee), and plenty of TBDs. Freeberg, who has helped spearhead union drives throughout the Twin Cities bar scene, reports that first contracts at Tattersall and Brother Justus are close to being hammered out; he says upstart unions at other distilleries sputtered out due to closures (Lawless Distilling) or the elimination of taprooms (Du Nord Craft Spirits).

Vikre will be the first test of whether that type of boozy labor union can stick along the North Shore, and Unite Here is inviting supporters to "pack the bar" with solidarity Tuesday evening. State Sen. Jen McEwen (DFL-Duluth) wasted no time pledging her support for the unionizing workers.

“The work environment at Vikre isn’t terrible, but things can always be better," Trewartha-Weiner says. "It’s very much a growing company, so to be able to get this done early and have a little bit of pull, that will be very nice.”

*Update, we connected with Emily Vikre on Thursday. Here's what she had to say:

"As long-time advocates for worker rights, we are committed to supporting a fair and open process in which all our employees have the chance to be heard. We value our employees and are proud of the collaborative and open culture and positive work environment we’ve created together. We are proud to offer competitive wages with annual cost of living adjustments, profit-sharing bonuses, retirement savings with company match, paid parental leave for both parents, paid sick and safe time, advance scheduling, a very flexible work environment, and more. Indeed, as a small woman-owned business, a zero-waste company, and a leader in the fight for earned sick and safe time and paid family leave, our actions speak for themselves. We fully support the opportunity of staff to have an election to determine next steps and will fully support the outcome." 

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