How to drink beer and support striking workers too

| February 19, 2015
Photo: United Steelworkers

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For social justice-minded people, it can be hard to navigate the ethical landmines in todays consumer markets. Should you buy local or organic? Fair trade, union made or sustainably packaged? Ideally, you want all those qualities rolled into every product, but it's not always that simple.

So let's start where it matters most: Beer.

Here we go, with three easy steps.

1. Buy bottles, not cans

Members of the United Steel Workers (USW) Local 9176 are approaching their 18-month strike anniversary. The easiest way to show solidarity while quenching your thirst is to buy beer in bottles.

The 120 workers at Crown Holdings Inc.'s Toronto plant have been on strike since September 6, 2013. Union members, many of whom have been working at Crown Holdings for over two decades, voted almost unanimously to reject a two-tiered collective agreement, after Crown Holdings tried to enforce downgraded pension plans and a 42 per cent wage cut for new hires. 

Replacement workers have been running production in the plant and the company has proposed to take back only some of the striking workers, while keeping replacements on permanently.

With about 140 plants in 40 countries, Crown Holdings Inc. is one of the world's largest manufacturers of food and beverage cans. One out of every five cans in North America is made by Crown Holdings employees, of whom only roughly half are unionized. 

Though not all beer cans are made by Crown Holdings, the majority are.

For simplicity's sake, the USW has called for a nation-wide boycott of cans, but be especially sure to avoid buying cans of these beers:

  • Molson Coors beers. This brewing conglomerate makes and distributes over 100 brands of beers including all Blue Moon, Bohemian, Carling, all Coors brands, Creemore, Grandville Island, Grolsch, Heineken, Miller Lite, and all Molson beers, to name only a few. 

  • Anheuser-Busch InBev is another major brewing conglomerate that uses Crown cans. Labatt is a subsidiary of AB InBev. Its brand portfolio includes all Labatt brews, Alexander Keith's, Beck's, Budweiser, Corona, Guinness, Hoegaarden, Kokanee, Lakeport, Leffe, Oland and Stella Artois.

  • Moosehead brewery also does business with Crown Holdings, so steer clear of all Moosehead beers as well as Alpine, Cracked Canoe, and Clancy's. 

  • According to the USW, the independent Canadian brewery Steam Whistle also uses Crown cans, and is one of many breweries that has had its orders filled by Crown's non-union plant in Calgary. Replacement workers at Crown's Toronto location have not been able to meet local demand.

  • There are also a number of small, craft brewers that use Crown cans including Amsterdam, Arch, Denison's, Great Lakes, McAuslan and Thornbury Cider. The USW is still adding to this list but in the meantime, if you want to get technical about it, you can look for the crown trademark on the can before you buy.

2. Bottled beer: union-made from coast to coast

The good news is that if you avoid cans, you will still be able to drink responsibly in solidarity. Most of Canada's major breweries are unionized. 

The Canadian Union of Brewery and General Workers represents workers at Molson Brewery in Toronto, which makes Canadian, Coors, Export, Miller, Rickards and Stock Ale and several other beers.

The Brewery Winery and Distillery Workers Union represents several brewers on Canada's West Coast, including Labatt, Molsons, Mission Hill, Okanagan Springs, Sleeman, Pacific Western and Granville Island.

The UFCW Local 361 represents workers at Halifax's four major breweries including Labatt, Oland's, Alexander Keith's and Moosehead.

3. Sorry, you might have to avoid a lot of craft beer for a while

Here's the bad news. Almost none of the local craft brewers that we know and love for their eclectic, seasonal and often excessively hoppy offerings are unionized.

Though several small batch breweries have been investing in ecologically sustainable brewing techniques and boast all-organic ingredients, the new beer-makers don't have the same labour history that many of the large manufacturers have. 

Brewers have been at the vanguard of Canada's buy local movement, and craft brewers like Parallel 49 have been on the rise as all over Canada.

According to Ontario Craft Brewers, craft beer continues to be the fastest growing segment within the LCBO's beer category, growing at anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent per year. According to the B.C. Craft Brewer's Guild, British Columbia is the birthplace of craft beer in Canada, where craft beer sales have doubled in the past four years.

Though these business are operated on a much smaller scale, the recent boom in the micro-brew business has not always benefitted workers. Last year, a vote to unionize was defeated at Vancouver craft brewery Parallel 49. According the CBC, workers at Parallel 49 sought to unionize due to "growing pains" caused by the company's fast-paced expansion. However, as workers explained to CBC reporter Jesara Sinclair, the idea of unionization does not always jive with the iconoclastic ethos of the craft breweries, which in large part define themselves in contrast to the cross-country mega-breweries like InBev AB and Molson Coors.

"It's difficult to organize small worksites and worksites where there is a high turn over," said President of the BC Federation of Labour Irene Lanzinger, "I applaud the people who try to organize in the craft brewing sector and they should keep trying."

Lanzinger also explained that the BC Federation of Labour has been advocating for a return to card check certification. This would grant union certification to a workplace after the majority of workers there signed a union card, without requiring a second vote to be held, as is the process in most provinces. 

"What we found is that in between the card sign-up and the vote many employers will influence the employers to not vote yes," Lanzinger explained, "that's why card check certification could make it easier to organize in these types of smaller workplaces."

If you want to stay hip, try Granville Island or Okanagan Springs. Though both of these B.C. breweries  are now subsidiaries of Molson, they offer craft breweries and were unionized prior to being bought out. 


Ella Bedard is rabble's labour intern. She has written about labour issues for and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.

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