A discussion about the beer market in the U.S. brings up the amount of unionization of BMCs versus smaller brewers that actually know what they’re doing, prompting E.D. Kain to say this:
Maybe this is just a sign that I’m privileged and I’ve got mine or something, but I wouldn’t trade the good craft brews of today for the piss beers of yesteryear (okay they still dominate the market somehow, but their grip is slipping) just to get the good union jobs back. Hell, I’d rather work at New Belgium than Coors. The New Belgium brewery, while not a union shop, is about as green as any brewery in the country, and I’m not sure but I think an environmentally friendly outfit that makes high quality, unique American beer somehow represents the liberal ethos better than mega-corporations who employ union workers.
Maybe there is a way to make unions and a highly fluid, highly competitive market work together. It just isn’t the old model of corporate or state-backed unionism we’ve become accustomed to for the past seventy years.
On the first point — that brewing horse piss under a conglomerate just because it’s a unionized conglomerate isn’t a choice I’d side with — I completely agree.
As for the latter part, that there is (or that the perception even exist of) this divide to speak of is another telltale sign of the trade-off that organized labor made in acquiescing to state capitalism. Thanks to how the brewing business was regulated after prohibition, large-scale operations were all that could really exist, so there were few opportunities for diversification. Brewery labor, like the rest of organized labor, accepted a system where concentration of production was maintained and encouraged in exchange for a better cut of the gains. Ever since a major barrier to entry was dropped, small craft brewers are nipping at this market. A few thoughts on that:
- As Kain observes, many of the emerging brewers, contrary to the modern labor assumption about small-scale non-union shops, are rather progressive (not “progressive” politics, I’m talking forward thinking, caring and whatnot). Unless there’s actual proof that someone working for, say, Sierra Nevada is really worse off than someone that works for SABMillerCoors I don’t see reason for complaint.
- There’s a conversation going on there in comments about profit and surplus value in a competitive market. The underlying raw economics makes sense: in a perfectly competing market, surplus is eaten. It’s not like the radical libertarian call for letting the free market eat the rich came out of nowhere. Yet even if all distorting factors were removed, I strongly doubt the beer market would approach dueling fruit stands. Besides, we’re still thinking of this in large scale terms by seeing no ground between them and this Homo Economicus scenario. Whatever did remain would be just fine for…
- Co-ops! If the workers are the owners, then there’s no middle step between them and the market. Who needs the bureaucratic state-nudged form of labor organizing when there isn’t a boss to negotiate with in the first place?
Right now, we have a market concentrated in a couple hands that just happen to employ union labor. I think to see a competitive market as somehow a threat to the gains of labor is to accept as inevitable a framework that was anything but. Respecting beer and respecting labor can and will be one in the same in the long run. In the meantime, no one should have to drink horse piss, regardless of how much people are being paid to bottle it.
BTW: the multi-tiered distribution system — laws that enshrine middlemen affiliated with the macros as gatekeepers between craft brews and retailers — could stand a rethink too. How many great beers aren’t getting the exposure they deserve because some distributor is thinking “seriously, fuck those guys” over shelf space?