Anchor workers and their supporters rallied prior to the March vote to unionize. Today, the workers ratified their first union contract.

Your humble narrator has been amassing bottle caps since 1996. They’re piled in a hefty wooden chest that used to belong to his wife’s grandfather. You can reach in with both arms and, near literally, wallow in nostalgia.

There are far more Anchors in there than all the U.S. Navy. Pale blue caps speckle this collection like gems among stones.  

Your humble narrator’s son, in fact, learned to differentiate colors by climbing into the chest and sorting Anchor bottle caps — blue, red, brown (Anchor now sells no fewer than six — six! varieties of India Pale Ale. This is ridiculous, and indicative of larger problems. But it has expanded the kid’s color palette).

The men and women who brew this beer 3.5 miles from Grand-père Theodore’s chest went public earlier this month with a unionization drive; the first craft brewery in America now may become the first craft brewery to unionize from within. And the workers have delivered devotees of their product the most indulgently pleasing news we may receive for quite some time: If you want to help them, buy more Anchor.

Buy more beer. Drink more beer. And, if you’re so inclined, post photos to social media with the hashtags “AnchoredInSF” or “AnchorUnion.”

“Lots of workers watch those hashtags,” says Brace Belden, who works in the Potrero brewery’s racking room. “It gives us hope.”

Adds Brian Witte, a worker in the fermentation department, “We’re unionizing because we love our jobs. We love our co-workers. We want everyone to have jobs. Boycotting Anchor will impede that effort. If anything, people should show support: Buy more beer!”

This is the happy-go-lucky messaging the workers have been delivering to the general public prior to make-it-or-break-it union elections at the brewery on March 6 and March 8: Better wages, better conditions, better sales, a better tomorrow.

A beer for everyday San Franciscans produced by everyday San Franciscans paid enough to live here, every day.

“Most people at Anchor are really happy to work there — from a passionate side,” says Odin Bykle, a brewer at Anchor. “We are passionate about the products we make. The problem is turning our passion into paying rent and living in the Bay Area.”

The brewery workers, like so many San Franciscans, are forced, every day, to choose between living and surviving.

When Garrett Kelly walked into Anchor’s 83-year-old art-deco brewery for the first time, it took his breath away. There they were, the ceiling-high, onion-shaped copper vats as shiny as the day they were made in West Germany nearly 70 years ago. There they were, the unique open fermentation tanks, as foamy as a carwash. This room, and, in fact, this whole neighborhood, is awash in the grainy odor of half-produced beer. It smells perfect.

“It’s just amazing,” Kelly, 31, says with a smile. “When you step into Anchor, you truly do feel like you’re a part of history. It’s like a cathedral.”

That was around four years ago, and, after the de rigueur stint on the bottling line — everybody here starts out at the bottom — he’s now in the fermentation department. His Anchor jacket and blue Dickies pants are discolored with craft beer and industrial lubricants and a mixture of both. He doesn’t care: “I love what I do. I love what I make. I love beer. I never get sick of it.”

Kelly earns $18.35 an hour. That’s $734 a week. That’s $36,700 a year. He recently was forced out of San Francisco; even the illegal in-law off Ocean was getting too expensive. He is now in Oakland, but that’s getting expensive, too. “I feel every penny I spend,” he says. “There are times when I have to ask whether I’m buying groceries or paying the phone bill. But I’m not married. I have no kids. This is my only job. So I am able to scrape by.”

He is relatively lucky. Belden is working up to three other jobs. And Jon Ezell, a tour guide turned bottling worker, finds himself living in a two-bedroom U.C. Berkeley student apartment in Albany with his grad student wife, his 7-year-old, his 5-year-old, his 5-month-old baby, and either his mother-in-law or father living in — because who can afford child care? In fact, had his wife stopped attending classes following the birth of their most recent child, she would have lost her scholarships and the family would have been out of this apartment. She was back in class one week later.

He is making $19.25 an hour, which comes out to $38,500 a year. He’s being trained on the machinery by men earning $16.50 an hour.

“It sounds ridiculous talking about poverty here in San Francisco when you make $19.25 an hour,” he says. But it creeps up on you. Suddenly, you’re in tight quarters.”

Ezell’s bedroom currently features a bunk bed, a double bed and a crib. Comparable apartments within San Francisco would run $4,000 to $5,000 a month — well more than his entire salary.

These stories roll off the line like so many bottles of beer. Bykle, the brewer, grew up on Potrero Hill in the shadow of the factory. He’s still here: The 43-year-old lives with family, because he’s clearing less than $50,000 a year.

Cesar Ibarra thinks about his life and work a lot when he’s waking up at 4 a.m. and driving in from the outer periphery of the Bay Area for his 5:30 a.m. shift. He’s 30 and has worked at Anchor for eight years. In that time, he’s been priced out of his native Mission to Richmond to Vallejo to Suisun City. The John O’Connell High grad is a long way from home, physically and metaphysically.

“Anchor is such a big San Francisco icon and I am a San Francisco man and a Mission man,” he says in a late-evening phone call. In the background, his 1-year-old daughter wails. In a few hours, he’ll have to wake up and start driving. “I enjoy getting up early and going to the brewery and smelling the malt. I care about what I do.”

“But now that I have a family and an infant, I am hoping they will be there for me the way I am there for them.”

Fritz Maytag, the scion of the Maytag washing machine empire, bought Anchor in 1965 when it had $128 in its coffers. He saved the business and, in the process, became the paterfamilias of craft brewing in America.

Maytag, who fostered a family environment and treated his workers very well, sold the brewery to Skyy Vodka execs Tony Foglio and Keith Greggorin 2010. These two, in 2017, unloaded Anchor to Japanese multinational Sapporo for the stunningly paltry sum of $85 million (Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewery likely ran Heineken closer to $1 billion).

Everyone who works here will swear up and down that the quality of the product has not diminished. That’s believable — but, now, Anchor is brewing beers with fruit in them and the aforementioned half-dozen different IPAs, while case upon case of Liberty Ale gathers dust in the basement. This reeks of a “How do you do, fellow kids?” moment; an old brewery donning a young brewery’s clothing in a desperate, marketing-department driven chase for market share and relevance. Meanwhile, either modern drinkers don’t want the brewery’s classic products or the brewery is unable to effectively get it to them — or both.

Quality notwithstanding, this is not the workers’ paradise Fritz Maytag created. After he left the picture, starting wages were knocked back from $17.25 to $15.50. They’re now $16.50 — less than they were eight years ago during a period when San Francisco’s cost of living jolted skyward.

In 2017, workers were made to contribute significantly more to their healthcare plans. Moreover, paid 45-minute lunches were replaced with half-hour unpaid lunches — a stealth appropriation of thousands of dollars from already marginally compensated employees.

Sapporo is a multi-billion dollar company, but austerity continues. In 2018, Anchor ceased contributing to workers’ 401Ks. In 2019, the cap for accrued sick time was halved.

Things have gotten to the point that, when Anchor management announced internally that the plan is to begin readying the factory to brew Sapporo Premium here alongside Anchor, workers were thrilled. The brewery is, purportedly, only chugging away at perhaps 60 percent capacity. More beer equals more shifts and more work. The company would, clearly, like to get more out of this factory and its workers.

But will the workers get more out of this company?  

ILWU organizer Agustin Ramirez, who broke in under Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, reminds Anchor management that international longshore workers aren’t the best people to displease for a multinational import-export company. Photo courtesy Anchor Union.

It is a testament to both the caution of the nascent unionists — and dissatisfaction among the workforce — that Anchor employees, cooperating with the city’s Democratic Socialists, were clandestinely able to gain the support of the majority of the factory’s employees. This required more than a year of organizing; it wasn’t until management was earlier this month hand-delivered a letter with 39 signatures affixed to it that it became aware. Roughly 50 of the 71-odd workers subsequently signed union cards.

Our calls and e-mails to Anchor management were shunted to a West Hollywood-based PR outfit, which told us no questions would be answered: “We are laying low.”

That may change after March 6, when the 61 factory workers will vote on whether to unionize. Two days later, the 10 employees at Anchor Public Taps will follow suit. Agustin Ramirez, the brewery’s organizer with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union got his start working under Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta 35 years ago with the United Farm Workers. This is his first brewery but it ain’t his first rodeo. And yet, even he can’t help but be optimistic: “At 1 o’clock on March 6, we’re probably gonna come out to celebrate in the tap room.”

First the drinking, then the working: This could be a difficult bargaining session. Anchor management on Feb. 20 e-mailed workers noting that it “will be meeting with all potentially impacted employees providing them with important information. We think it is critical that everyone gets all of the facts and that everyone’s minds remain open as they carefully think through the implications of becoming unionized here at Anchor.” (emphasis ours)

That’s loaded language. And, even if the votes go the workers’ way, it figures to be something of a challenge to wrangle with Sapporo. The company’s 2019 Management Plan reveals a profitable 2018 — with one of the few money-losers being Anchor. The multinational reported a 4.4 billion yen “impairment loss” on Anchor ($39.8 million). “We switched to a strategy of concentrating on Anchor’s local area, but the craft beer market in San Francisco stagnated due to new emerging craft beers and outflow of demand to wine and spirits,” notes the prospectus.

And yet, it may be tough going to “concentrate on Anchor’s local area” if you’re perceived as a union-busting out-of-town mega-corporation. “I intend to closely monitor the developments at Anchor,” wrote Supervisor Shamann Walton, in whose district the brewery sits, to the company’s chief operating officer. “I stand ready to assist in achieving a positive outcome that honors the workers, their union, and the Anchor Brewery that has been an important part of San Francisco since 1896.”

This is a union town.

And, for a business that makes money by putting products onto ships and taking them out of ships, it may not be the best strategy to poke the ILWU in the eye. That “L” stands for “Longshore,” and the “I” is for “International,” after all.

“This is why the workers came to the ILWU,” explains Ramirez. “We have a long history of militancy. Not only here in the United States but around the world. We live by the credo that an injury to one is an injury to all.”

This is the storm that is gathering over the brewery. But, really, it feels more consequential than the plight of 71 workers in an art deco factory housing an ocean’s worth of beer. The story of young locals forced to choose between following their dreams or making a living; coming to the realization that the career and housing status of an earlier generation are unattainable; being forced into perpetual adolescent penury or commuting from further and further rings of Bay Area suburbs; and toiling away harder and harder, for wealthier and wealthier corporations, for less and less money and with less and less standing have become the overarching themes of life in this city.

Anchor isn’t just San Francisco’s beer. It’s San Francisco.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. This story highlights how unsustainable the wealth gap in SanFrancisco is. Clearly, Anchor is a failed business model if their model mandates they remain in San Francisco. But Unions are also a failure if their model is to violently bully employers into bankruptcy to pay non-technical wharehouse workers more money than the business produces. The liberal tech-topia is too expensive for busines AND for labor. Anyone who thinks they can join the middle class by living and working in the Bay Area is trippin’.

  2. If my son or daughter were working there, I would encourage them to go to night school and/or an online trade school to look for a better paying job. Folks are going to spend a lot of time and energy to get a union for what? an extra 1 or 2 bucks an hour? Time would be better spent getting your resume up to snuff for a better paying job.

    For the folks that want to stay long term in the bay area and raise a family, see the writing on the wall. This is not a career job. Finding another career will benefit you in the long run as this is a dead end job. Brewery’s often get folks to take less than they are worth as people think they work in a “Cool” industry or company.

    The definition of “Cool” changes when you need to support a family.

    I love Anchor Brewery beer and I think they treat their employees well for the industry. That doesn’t mean it’s a place that can support 30-40 year careers.

    1. I think John makes a lot of reasonable points. I don’t know much about the craft brewing market, so am open to learning more from someone in the know, but the economics of running a craft brewery in SF while also paying your employees a fair living wage just doesn’t seem to make obvious business sense.

      From some brief searching around on the web, it looks like most regular brewery salaries across the country don’t top $40k. So Anchor employees, while already being towards the high end of my guess of the industry income range, almost certainly would deserve a significant raise to adjust for cost of living (this is assuming you want to pay them better!). In addition, physical costs of running a brewery in the city are probably also higher than in, say, Chico.

      On the other hand, the benefits I can think of for brewing in the city are (1) less money to ship beer to what is presumably their biggest consumer market, (2) better branding in aforementioned big market due to being “local”, and (3) more on-premise revenue opportunities such as public tours or taprooms. Given how efficient shipping logistics is in this country, I have a hard time believing (1) is significant. (2) and (3) seem more promising, but still not do not lead seem like obvious wins, especially because of competition from the likes of Fort Point, 21st Amendment, etc.

      If the workers unionize, I sincerely hope it can work out for them. But in my honest personal view, I have a hard time being optimistic for them, unless the biggest benefit of unionization is actually just being a good marketing campaign (as seems to be partly the case, with all the workers encouraging the public to buy more Anchor beer and all the support posters popping up around bars in town). Otherwise, the higher cost of labor, even if it’s the right thing to do, will just make places that are not SF look more attractive for business.

      In the end, San Francisco is just too expensive and this story is another consequence of that fact. Although, honestly speaking, if there were no more craft breweries in San Francisco, I don’t think many people’s lives would be that much worse. There’s so much great beer being made in many other deserving parts of our country, not to mention the rest of the world. Plus, maybe we could build some 100% affordable housing projects in place of where the breweries used to be.

      1. “Maybe we could build some affordable housing where the breweries used to be.”

        I remember when people simply slept in beer vats, instead of tearing them down to build housing.