Eighteen workers at Lawless Distilling Co. and Stilheart Distillery & Cocktail Lounge picked Labor Day to announce that each of their workforces are now unionized. Kirsten Karnitz, who owns Stilheart in Minneapolis’ North Loop, and her husband Nate, who owns Lawless in the Seward neighborhood, agreed to recognize the actions, meaning their employees are now part of Unite Here Local 17, the Minneapolis-based hospitality union that represents around 6,000 workers.
“Not having a say in your working conditions adds to the instability of working in America, especially during this pandemic; workers at Lawless and Stilheart want to have their voices heard in a way that makes these businesses better in which to work and serve customers,” says Unite Here organizer Geof Paquette, noting that a “overwhelming majority” of Lawless and Stilheart workers signed union cards. “Our industry supports so many working people and their families, we have so much power when we choose to wield it.”
Workers at Lawless and Stilheart — two legally separate shops with lots of staff overlap — will collectively negotiate separate contracts with both businesses. They join a recent labor wave within the local service industry, following union moves at Tattersall Distilling Co., Spyhouse Coffee, and Surly Brewing Co., the latter of which laid off 100-plus workers days after they announced plans to unionize.
“Through the support and guidance from Unite Here, as well as our fellow industry friends unionizing elsewhere, we have been empowered both as individuals and a team,” says Natasha Malmberg, lead bartender at Stilheart. “This process has not only strengthened our relationship as coworkers, but really brought us all together as an industry.”
At Tattersall, after some initial jockeying, ownership agreed to recognize its union, while Spyhouse declined to voluntarily do so and Surly simply eliminated its unionizing workers (Surly, while acknowledging the bad optics, claims the layoffs weren’t union-related). Employee-owner relations at Lawless and Stilheart appear warmer — union recognition was instant and none of the staffers interviewed by CP expressed major grievances.
“We really chose to unionize to keep a great workplace great,” says Stilheart bartender Ethan Dexter. “We’re excited to work with ownership to make developmental change in our workplace and the industry itself.”
Nate Karnitz says he believes the “unionization effort is coming from a place of respect, which is reflective of the relationship that we’ve had with our employees,” and he intends to negotiate in good faith. Kirsten Karnitz, whose business opened just ahead of the coronavirus outbreak in March, says she feels the same way.
Lawless, Stilheart, Tattersall, Spyhouse, and Surly — all of which were organized by Unite Here Local 17 — are now local examples of a small but surging push for unionizing food workers.
“We are all looking toward the winter and continued impacts of COVID-19 knowing how much our industry and our jobs are changing on-the-fly,” says Lawless bartender Eliza Smith. “We want a guarantee that our input will be heard and that the owners will be accountable for following through.”