Heather Sanborn, co-owner of Rising Tide Brewing in Portland and a Democratic state senator representing the city, is seen in March. Credit: Courtesy of Rising Tide Brewing

A former employee of a Portland brewery co-owned by a Democratic state senator filed a charge last week with the National Labor Relations Board claiming he was fired because he was pro-union.

The former production worker at Rising Tide Brewing filed the charge on Sept. 16 with the board, which protects employees’ rights whether or not they are unionized. The brewery is owned by Heather and Nathan Sanborn. Sanborn, a Portland Democrat, is serving her first term in the Maine Senate and is running for reelection this fall.

While most large brewers, including Anheuser-Busch and Sam Adams, are union shops, allowing employees to bargain collectively with management for better wages and benefits, most craft brewers are not. 

The employee charge, first reported on the Good Beer Hunting website, alleges that the Sanborns discouraged the brewer from organizing production staff to form a union earlier this year to improve safety and get regular performance reviews. 

The unionization effort later ended.

“In January, we left it up to our team to decide if they wanted to go forward with unionization,” Heather Sanborn said. “The team decided not to go forward and withdrew the request. We are confident that when the National Labor Relations Board examines the facts, they will find that we conducted ourselves entirely appropriately.”

Ed Egee, a spokesperson for the National Labor Relations Board, said he cannot reveal the employee’s name to protect his privacy. He said employees have the right under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in activity, whether pro-union or anti-union, without retribution from their employer.

In the Good Beer Hunting article, the employee alleges that the Sanborns sent an email to the six production staff who were proposing a union outlining reasons why the employees should not vote to organize. The email reportedly said, among other things, that costs associated with unionizing would reduce the company’s overall resources.

Egee said employers have to be careful about what they say during a unionization effort, and must not threaten to shut the company down or fire the employee.

The former employee told Good Beer Hunting that Heather Sanborn talked to him about his negative attitude at work and in late July met him in the brewery’s parking lot and terminated his employment.

Egee said that career experts with the board in Boston have opened the investigation and will begin to investigate the charge to see if it has merit, which can take 10 to 14 weeks.

“If they determine there is a meritorious charge, they will attempt to settle the case,” he said. 

That happens in 90 percent of cases, but if the case isn’t resolved, it will go to an administrative law judge to settle.

Maine’s craft brewing industry has 152 licensed brewers that employed 2,046 people directly in 2019, contributing about $656 million to Maine’s economy, according to the Maine Brewers’ Guild. But during the coronavirus, two-thirds of breweries had to reduce staff, with some 660 people laid off or furloughed as of April, according to the guild.

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...