‘I was really proud to work there’: Surly employees remain steadfast amid layoffs

Days after announcing an intent to unionize, Surly employees were laid off indefinitely.

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Nur B. Adam

From left, Surly’s former and current hospitality workers Megan Caswell, Natalie Newcomer and Andy Magill sit in the backyard of Surly Brewing Co. in Minneapolis and drink Fair State beer on Saturday, Sept. 12. Fair State’s employees unionized last week in a similar manner; and their management voluntarily recognized their union. “We just want people to know (that) we’re trying to work on something better for everybody, not just like… we don’t just wanna be like ‘Fuck Surly.’ Like… that’s not the point of all this,” Caswell said.

Samantha Hendrickson

For the workers of Surly Brewing Company, fighting for their jobs is not just about the money but about the community — something many workers said they are not willing to leave behind just yet.

The brewing company announced the shutdown of its beer hall just days after its hospitality workers attempted to unionize. Despite this, workers are pushing to get their union recognized by the owner, Omar Ansari, and fighting to keep the co-workers they call family together.

“The Surly family was nothing short of amazing,” said Natalie Newcomer, one of the primary faces of the “Unite Surly Workers” movement.

She was also the only worker fired among 150 employees at the company, while others were laid off and would keep their positions until Nov. 2. Newcomer said the letter came shortly after she led discussions on unionizing, which were just gaining traction in early August.

She also said she was fired because of her performance, despite being the first worker asked to come back when the store reopened following pandemic shutdowns.

Pizza cook Andy Magill said the business became home to him after working at Surly for a year and a half. When he moved back to Minneapolis after attending school in Denver and had trouble reconnecting with old friends, Surly provided him with the community he needed.

“It’s this melting pot of weirdos and misfits that don’t fit anywhere else but Surly,” Magill said. “They’re all really accepting, and we’re really close.”

It is that closeness, Magill said, that made Surly run so successfully.

“I was super proud to work there,” Newcomer said. “Like my friends would brag about me, it was really cool to work there, until like two months ago.”

Most workers had been laid off as they shrunk their operations at the onset of the pandemic. But after a short close, Surly Brewing Company started to run curbside pick-up and delivery early in the summer, like many other restaurants, to try to stay afloat during the pandemic.

Many employees expressed excitement at the minimal reopening, but they did not return to the Surly that they remembered.

Some workers said they felt unsafe due to lack of COVID-19 prevention in the restaurant, and that nontip-earning workers received no raise in pay, even though Surly advertised an automatic 15% gratuity for them.

Despite its popularity, the beer hall announced its intentions to close indefinitely at the beginning of September, citing financial struggles due to COVID-19, in an email statement given to the Minnesota Daily. The timing of the closure coinciding with the union discussions is only coincidence, according to the email statement.

This roused workers’ suspicions — just weeks before closing, Surly posted a job opening for a restaurant manager.

But the workers still believe that they can get that family back if Ansari is willing to recognize their union.

“If we can get this union going … even if we have to shut down for the winter … we’d love to come back next summer with the crew that we have, and do what we do,” Magill said.

While more than 110 hospitality workers are attempting to form the union, many community members are adding to the numbers. That includes people like University graduate student Kody Olson, who used to stock his fridge with Surly beer. Now, he is boycotting the business in support of the workers.

Long-time employee Megan Caswell asked David Witt, a local artist and son of long-time union members, to design art for the union movement. Witt immediately said yes. “I’m on the side of the workers,” he said, recalling watching his own parents strike for union rights in Minneapolis.

While the workers continue to negotiate recognition of their union with Ansari, many still gather for their after-shift beer around the famous Surly silo. They will be laid off at the start of November.

“The place really means a lot to me, but it’s the people that made it mean a lot to me,” Magill said.