Keith Flett contributes to the debates around Brewdog
If you drink craft beer you are probably aware of the crisis that has hit Scottish brewer Brewdog after a group of ex-employees, Punks With Purpose, published a statement detailing experiences of harassment and discrimination while they were working for the company.
Some media commentary noted that there are always disgruntled ex-employees, but ignored the reality that the statement has attracted the support of hundreds of people, most of whom still work in the beer industry.
Brewdog in the UK is certainly the best-known craft beer brand. Its beers are in supermarkets and its main brand Punk IPA is on the bar in Wetherspoons. There are regular publicity stunts – some worthwhile around climate change or helping the NHS during the pandemic, others less appropriate. Engagements with politicians are also common, not only with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but also Keir Starmer, who has also done publicity appearances in Brewdog bars.
Brewdog is seen as the progressive modern face of beer, something different from the traditional and conservative brewing trade. The Punks with Purpose statement underlines that the reality is very different.
There is a good deal of commentary already by beer writers like Matthew Curtis and Melissa Cole which is well worth seeking out. Cole in particular underlines that she has seen numerous apologies from Brewdog in the past which have made no obvious difference to what actually happens.
Brewdog in the form of co-founder James Watt has apologised, and indeed it is still issuing apologies as more people sign the Punks statement. The first reaction was to argue that of course some former employees didn’t get on with Brewdog but that many had a great experience. Watt asked existing employees to sign a statement agreeing that it was a good place to work. That approach didn’t last long before Watt issued his first apology, which agreed the complainants had a point and matters would be looked at.
The next apology reported that Blythe Jack had been appointed the new chair of Brewdog. Reports made something of her gender – and indeed female chairs of Companies are still far fewer than would be merited if that was the criteria for appointment. However she is in fact a senior figure in Brewdog’s private equity investor TSG, and one suspects her appointment is as much to do with protecting their investment after last week’s furore. She has in fact been on the board of Brewdog for some years without any obvious changes to culture being made. There is some speculation that she might in fact be preparing Brewdog for a launch on the Stock Exchange.
More interesting perhaps is the appointment of Ren Navarro, a diversity consultant who has worked widely in the hospitality area in North America. A glance at her social media indicates that she does indeed ‘walk the walk’ on issues of discrimination. How welcome that will be to quite everyone at senior levels in Brewdog remains to be seen.
Partnerships with trade unions
My experience as a union officer in private sector companies much bigger than Brewdog is that while people who work in the diversity area are invariably well intentioned and want to make positive changes, they often do better when they are in partnership with recognised unions.
Senior figures in companies have many issues to pursue and may need persuading that diversity is up there with the most important. If they see that not only their own specialist team but the unions who represent their workers are on board, that is often a key motivator to make progress.
The latest James Watt apology underlines that there will be an independent survey of Brewdog workers, and complaints will be listened to. One might think that given the culture that has prevailed it would indeed be a brave employee who spoke out on issues in the survey unless they had already secured a job elsewhere.Watt also announced that there would be an ‘employee forum’, which any trade union activist will recognise as a device used by employers to frustrate attempts at union recognition.
So what is to be done?
There have been suggestions of a consumer boycott. Brewdog is a global beer company now (albeit not a big player) and its secure market position in the UK suggests this would not worry Watt too much. It would also be very difficult to organise.
The yawning gap between Brewdog’s image and reality could however be narrowed by recognition of a trade union. Both Unite and London IWW have members at the brewer. A union can provide a genuinely independent framework for employees to raise issues and get them resolved without, in most cases, the need for external publicity. It is of course mundane, but it means in this case Brewdog can get on with brewing beers and workers can get concerns heard without worrying that they are placing their entire employment future on the line.
Those who use Brewdog bars can play a role, not by boycotting them but by talking to staff about unions and why being a member is important.
Given that Brewdog likes to place itself at the cutting edge of beer, a more radical agenda could be considered. Watt could move towards making both brewery and bars into a more co-operatively run and owned enterprise. Not the anti-union device of employee shareholders but more on the basis of giving recognised employee union representatives a key role in decision making
It would be radical but that is how Brewdog has always liked to position itself in the world of beer – except when it comes to its own workforce that is. It’s notable that despite Watt’s love of eye-catching publicity, he hasn’t ventured into this area.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.