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Creature Comforts Employees Organize Independent Union

Katie Britton speaks about forming a union for Creature Comforts employees at a Little Kings launch event Jan. 13. Credit: Mark Taylor

Workers at Creature Comforts have organized the Brewers’ Union of Georgia, or BUG, one of the first of its kind in the nation. The union began the process of engaging with management last Friday, and an election will be set soon to formalize the relationship and allow the brewery’s nearly 100-person staff to partner with executives in shaping the company’s future. Widespread support among the company’s staff has organizers hopeful of a successful vote.

Union organizers say they are excited to carry the popular brewery from regional award-winner to national forerunner. “We could become the industry leader,” says one of the members, who asked for anonymity, citing how few breweries match a superior product with the progressive company culture Creature Comforts has built. “We want to help raise the bar across the industry.”

The brewery’s rapid expansion in the last several years has put pressure on the company to abandon the values that distinguished it, say union members. “We exist to foster human connection,” says the company on its website. To become a “force for good in the world” and “support the city they love” the company built a unique family-like culture that enabled its remarkable success in its early years. “The core values espoused by Creature Comforts essentially demand a union,” according to a statement from the prospective union. 

“We’ve lost many amazing people due to this situation,” says employee Katie Britton. “Forming this union is a way to ensure we can retain the amazing people still here and make it better for those to come.” Instead of considering leaving themselves, BUG organizers are rededicating themselves to the company through the union. “We’ve all bought in so much and put so much of our equity into [Creature Comforts],” says a member. “We want to see it succeed.”

The accelerated growth in recent years has begun to fray that company cohesion and introduced a new era of instability, according to employees. “We grew really fast and didn’t have the proper infrastructure in place to support that growth,” says a BUG member. A vicious cycle took hold, where employees feeling overburdened and underrecognized began departing, leaving the growing tide of responsibilities to fall on those remaining, who in turn suffered burnout and began to leave. Workers describe it as a veritable “mass exodus” from a company so known for employee retention.

Upper management is said to be distracted by expansion, especially the company’s new facility in Los Angeles, leaving ever-busier employees at home feeling unsupported and neglected. The employees keeping the company going back home say they feel a lack of appreciation, or even basic knowledge, of what is being accomplished while the executives’ attention is elsewhere. Employees describe a “chasm growing between upper management and everybody who’s supposed to be running the facility.”

The union’s organizing drive took off quickly, beginning in earnest only last summer and soon gathering majority support across the company. After first approaching a national union to sponsor the effort, organizers decided to leverage Athens’ unique local networks to get the ball rolling. Spencer Britton, a research manager, reached out to Mariah Parker, then an Athens-Clarke County commissioner, who connected the nascent union with the Economic Justice Coalition’s Workers Center, a resource specifically designed to facilitate worker efforts like Creature’s. 

After meeting with Broderick Flanigan, Joseph Carter, Enrique Reyna and others at the workers’ center, an innovative strategy was devised to create BUG as an independent union not under the umbrella of a pre-existing national union. Historically, most unions have formed under the aegis of a national union such as the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers and the like. But BUG opted for the novel approach seen in the last couple years with Amazon and Starbucks workers who have led the way in establishing new, independent unions. BUG’s approach captures Athens’ independent spirit, following in the footsteps of the independent artists and record labels that put the city on the map. 

Organizers see the Creature Comforts initiative as the beginning of a movement in Athens, where an absence of worker power has contributed to deep poverty and precariousness for Athens’ many thousands of low-wage workers, especially Black and Latino workers. “We want to build a broad-based movement for workers in Athens,” says Flanigan, board president at the EJC and team leader at the workers’ center. Flanigan and the other organizers say the center is poised to become a hub of organizing, education and protection for Athens workers. The organizers’ intention is to distribute their experience and expertise with a “train the trainer” model, says Carter, where workers are empowered with the information and skills they need to organize their workplaces as Creature Comforts is doing. Rejecting the hierarchical model seen in some 20th century unions, organizers envision a member-led, worker-led center to begin to correct the entrenched economic disparities that have plagued Athens for decades. 

Following the meeting with management on Friday, the union threw a party next door at Little Kings to inaugurate the company’s next step, urging attendees to buy Creature products. Excited about the company’s future, BUG members gave attendees stickers to affix to the ubiquitous cans announcing their being union-made.

Born and raised in Athens, Flanigan sees the work as a corrective to the “historic disparities in our community.” He looks to Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in his last years to promote unionization and economic justice. In a city whose historical development and growth is seemingly dependent on a pliant and poor workforce, especially Black and brown Athenians, Flanigan sees collective worker power as the solution hiding in plain sight. Workers need only recognize their centrality to the creation and preservation of the city’s maldistributed wealth, he says. “Without the workers and their labor it doesn’t happen.”

Union organizers said they requested a meeting with management on Friday, but CEO Chris Herron declined. On Tuesday, Jan. 17, Herron responded to a subsequent letter requesting union recognition by saying the company would consider it, prompting organizers to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election by secret ballot to formally create the union. The petition included signatures from a majority of Creature Comforts employees, according to Carter, a UGA library employee and United Campus Workers of Georgia member who’s helping to organize brewery workers.

Following the delivery of the Friday letter, the union threw a party next door at Little Kings to inaugurate the employees’ next step, urging attendees to buy Creature products. Excited about the company’s future, BUG members gave attendees stickers to affix to the ubiquitous cans announcing their being union-made.

This post has been updated to include additional details.