“Let’s Do It. Now.” How Tattersall Went from Hot Shop to Union in a Matter of Weeks

Photo courtesy of Bennet Johnson

In August of 2020, Tattersall Distilling Co. in Minneapolis, Minn. became the first unionized craft distillery in the nation. Bennett Johnson, a DSA member, lead bartender at Tattersall, and now a member of Unite Here Local 17, provided The Dish with a timeline of the unionization efforts. He also spoke to one of our editors at length, and excerpts of that interview – which you can listen to here in full – are included with his timeline below. 

March 15, 2020 – The Day The Bars Closed

 Like many in the service industry, I worked my last shift that day. It was the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day and busy for a Sunday, considering we all knew an executive order would be coming down due to the spread of COVID-19. It was an extremely stressful week leading up to the shutdown. 

And I just remember, the Friday going in, one co worker was like ‘I think I was exposed to somebody who tested positive or is symptomatic’. And so they couldn’t come in. And just basically we all kind of froze, but then we were doing our normal shit and not wearing masks and just serving guests like normal, but it was like ‘It’s happening right here with us.’

March 17

The staff received an email from management regarding the shut down, unemployment and health benefits (the employer offered to pay our premiums through the end of the CARES Act in August), and assuring us that our jobs were there for us once the dining ban in Minneapolis was lifted. 

April 12

Management informed us that the company was going to shift the production side of the distillery to making hand sanitizer (obviously in huge demand). Management worked with the production team to shift the facility to produce, package, and distribute the sanitizer, some of which was donated, some sold with profits going to Second Harvest Heartland. Through this time (and to this day) the distilling team did not receive hazard pay, although there was a “bonus” allotted after we announced our intent to unionize. 

May 25

George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). This sparked massive uprisings here in Minneapolis and around the globe. Many of the Tattersall staff took to the streets, established mutual aid programs, volunteered, and did outreach of all kinds.

As a staff, we’ve talked to each other a lot over the years about ‘How do we change the industry? And how do we make the industry look like we want it to?’ and it’s a lot of like, lofty [thoughts like] ‘Well, if I were to open a place…’ or ‘When I open my own place…’ or ‘If somebody gives me a shot…’ and I think it just kind of brought us all together a bit more like, ‘Let’s do it now. Here. Where we’re at. And get the ball rolling,’ instead of having the like, the projected idea of how you would like to see it, it’s like ‘Let’s do it. Now.’

June 3

Tattersall management emailed staff for the first time since April, addressing the murder of George Floyd, systemic racism, policing in the US, and the necessity for “real change”. In this same email, management announced a tentative date for potentially reopening the bar.

June 9

Staff received the company’s COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, which we felt was lacking. Management proposed a staff-wide meeting for June 24 to discuss reopening plans but staff had to declare their availability and intention to work by June 16, a week before any reopening discussion. In this email, management also stated they would “love to work with you and get as many people back as possible without hiring from outside if at all possible.” 

I’m the lead bartender…so I was like ‘I have at least 25 questions’ to my GM, and she was basically like, ‘Oh, we’ll just figure it out.’ And I was like, okay, are we using single use compostable cups? Are we even using ice? Are we garnishing? Are we using straws? Are we using glassware?… And I’m just like, have you thought about this?

Mid-June

During this time, we began communicating quite a bit via text messaging at first, then Signal group chats, and eventually group discussions via Zoom. Looking at what was coming down the pipeline, we shared concerns over the very thin (literally two and half pages) COVID Preparedness Plan. We decided to create a new email account from which we would collectively respond to management without the worry of being singled out or compromising our eligibility for rehire. 

June 16

For the deadline to declare our availability to return to work, we responded in the affirmative via our new collective email address, signed by all staff that wanted to be included. This was truly a group endeavor. We also added important points we wanted to address, such as: severing ties with the MPD for larger events using off-duty officers; balanced compensation for a lower volume of business and reduced tipped income; clear logistics and operational plans for COVID-19; more diverse hiring practices; and phasing-in our own opening structure for maximum safety. This email was our first collective action on our path to unionization. 

One co-worker reached out to a lawyer…just to get a feel of ‘Is this normal? What’s going on?’ [and] they broke it down and like ‘This is legal, this is illegal, but you know, unless you want litigation, I can’t really help you. It sounds like you need to organize.’

June 17

Management responded to us that they were “disappointed,” saying they felt the issues outlined in the collective email should’ve been brought to their attention earlier. They seemed blindsided by our collective response and scrapped our June 24 meeting. It was replaced with one-on-one interviews, supposedly as a way to allow us to express our individual concerns about reopening. They also announced they were “bringing in more outside candidates as well to help improve diversity,” but that “reduced capacity means that we will be bringing back less people.” We interpreted this to mean the one-on-ones would actually be a job interview for our previously held positions and there would be potential competition with these new candidates. 

June 19

This was the new deadline they announced for us to report back with our availability. Juneteenth. We saw this as tasteless and a gross oversight of our previous asks about inclusion and their intentions to “improve diversity.” We responded that day, reiterating our collective intent to return to work and calling attention to their insensitivity.

June 21

Management reinstated the June 24 staff meeting, which was a small win, stating that non-attendance of the in-person meeting would be interpreted as declining employment. “If you do not feel safe attending the meeting, you will not feel safe serving customers, and you are not ready to come back to work.”

June 12 – June 21

Over nine days of intense organizing – a process that normally takes much longer – we worked with lawyers, union reps and each other to develop our union, even as a few individuals didn’t care to organize, and opted out. Sheigh Freeberg from Unite Here Local 17 came on as our union rep.  

Within a week, we were like, marching on the boss, you know, it was very fast. You talk to someone through Anchor [Brewery in San Francisco] or something, and their campaign was like a year plus; they put in a lot of work. So we had the ‘hot shop’ kind of thing. Sometimes I’m on these calls, or talking to people about my experience, and it’s like the opposite of how it usually is, where it’s years of organizing. Basically, we talked and we said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ And then we did it.

June 24

The day of the staff meeting arrived. Right before the meeting, those of us in favor of the union gathered in the parking lot to meet Freeberg in-person for the first time. We signed our Union Cards, put on our Unite Here Local 17 buttons, and walked into the cocktail room as the distillers and bottlers joined the meeting to support the union.

Pro-union or not, everyone would be at the meeting. And we made sure our managers knew that Freeberg was there at our request. We started reading our prepared statement as soon as we settled into the room. We declared our union and gave management the chance to voluntarily recognize us, giving them 48 hours before we announced our presence on social media. They declined.

After our announcement one of the owners accosted the distillers, asking if they supported the union—which is illegal  — and our union rep intervened to inform him of this. They exchanged words and the extremely tone-deaf owner threatened to call the police, blatantly endangering our diverse staff, less than a month after the murder of George Floyd.

We were in communication that day [with the distillers] to just be like ‘I did not think that’s how that was gonna go’. I thought [the meeting] would be tense, but I didn’t think that they would immediately walk up to [the distillers] and be like ‘Do you know about this? Are you part of this? What are you doing?’ I mean, that’s a very uncomfortable, intense, and toxic environment to be in….I know they felt supported from us, and still do, but it’s a lot harder for them than it is for us. Most of us are on unemployment, we’re volunteering, or we’re doing mutual aid, or whatever. But they still go in three days a week and have to see these people all the time and get treated differently all the time. And that’s got to be really draining. So we just try to be like a pressure valve…like you want to bitch about it? Just unload?Just do it.

June 26 

At nine in the morning, 47 hours after we announced our union, management went live on the distillery’s social media channels to talk about our union. They were promptly shredded by the public. Their attempt to get ahead of us did not work. By this time we had around 90% of the staff in favor of the union and we had a very favorable response from the public on social media. 

[Management] went live on Facebook and Instagram with a huge statement… saying ‘Some of our staff has decided to form a union. Although we support our staff, we don’t feel this is necessary. All this is going to do is silence people because there’ll be this giant machine called a “union” that’s taking over everyone’s opinions and ideas and lives and uniforms!’ and whatever. And so it went on and on, that kind of classic union-busting stuff…I’d say within 20 minutes of it being up, there were probably 30 comments, and all of them were negative. Just strangers, people that follow the account. They’re either regulars, or they’re fans, they’re whatever they are. And they’re just basically saying, ‘If your workers want a union, you should give it to them’.

July – August

Since management declined to voluntarily recognize the union, and due to public pressure in support of our effort, management opted for an NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) election, requiring employees to vote on the union. Management had to mail a list of eligible employees and their addresses to the Unite Here, which then coordinated mailing out the ballots. Curiously, even though the distillery had our correct information (for all our paychecks) much of the address information for the election was incorrect, causing delays while the Union updated it. This postponed the unionizing process by about six weeks.

August 20 – Election Day

We won our election with 87% of our 40-person staff voting in favor of the union.

This timeline was obviously accelerated by COVID-19, and it’s remarkable that we were able to mobilize and win a union vote in such a short time. But the problems and frustrations are something that many of us have endured in this industry for years: like not listening to employees who do the work on the ground, lack of inclusion or equity, or uncertainty around hiring and firing to name a few.  After our campaign there was a wave of other places wanting to unionize in Minneapolis, resulting in much collaboration and organizing. Looking ahead, it’s been very much on my mind what reopening will look like this summer. Will it be like summer 2020 all over again? Has anything changed the conditions that finally agitated us, and many others, to unionize? What have the employers at-large done over the past year to change the industry in a real and actionable way? If they won’t ask it of themselves we will have to strongly ask it of them. The last thing any of us wants to see is more of the same. 

Lastly, our union local, Unite Here reps, and the DSA helped coordinate, facilitate, and execute so much (thanks to all, you know who you are). Let’s keep it going! Solidarity!  

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