Workers at Tattersall Distilling in northeast Minneapolis have pushed to form a union to speak out on COVID-19 preparedness, diversity, and other issues, a move that has sent shock waves through the region’s craft beverage industry.

Over the last few weeks, a group of Tattersall workers, including bartenders and some of the distillery’s production staff, have gone back and forth with co-founders Dan Oskey and Jon Kreidler over grievances. The company is trying to reopen its cocktail room, which closed in March during the statewide shutdown of bars and restaurants to halt coronavirus.

The discussion has gotten contentious at times with protesters demonstrating outside the distillery. At a meeting last month, one of the owners threatened to call the police on a union representative.

Tattersall, which opened five years ago, is one of the most popular distillery and cocktail rooms in the Twin Cities. After the cocktail room closed, Tattersall used its distillery to make hand sanitizer and has recently started selling takeout cocktail kits.

Tattersall has about 40 full-time and part-time employees with some who fall under management, security and other roles not eligible as union members.

More than 90% of those who would be eligible have signed cards designating Unite Here Local 17, which represents more than 6,000 workers in hotels, restaurants and other hospitality establishments throughout the state, as their collective bargaining representative, according to Sheigh Freeberg, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 17.

Bryce Laine, who has been a bartender at Tattersall since it first opened, said some workers felt its leaders had been too vague about the COVID-19 safety measures when assessing staffing availability during reopening discussions. He also said workers were blindsided by the prospect that not everyone may be able to return to work and later that people would need to reinterview for jobs.

“There’s been plenty of times in the past when we have in so many words been told this is how it’s going to be and if you don’t like it here’s the door,” Laine said. “We have been told that we are replaceable.”

Laine said the distillery has also had issues being inclusive as Laine has heard from co-workers about racially insensitive statements other employees have made and harassment from customers.

Penny Weiland, a distiller who has still been working at Tattersall making hand sanitizer and supports the union, said the e-mails about availability and coronavirus policy had been confusing.

“Everyone should have been involved in the conversation, even asking if they should reopen,” she said, in an e-mail.

In an e-mail to owners, workers also listed several other concerns including advocating for the possibility of additional compensation to make up for the health risks of returning to work and the loss of unemployment benefits, involvement of staff in creating COVID-19 operations procedures, diversity and inclusion training and implementation of inclusive hiring practices, a new policy for managing racist and inappropriate behavior and no longer requesting Minneapolis police presence at Tattersall events.

After several e-mail exchanges with workers, managers organized an in-person group meeting June 24. At the meeting, workers announced their intent to unionize.

At some point the discussion between Freeberg and Kreidler got heated and Kreidler threatened to call the police on Freeberg. Kreidler told the Star Tribune that Freeberg was “aggressive and combative.” Freeberg has said he was alerting Kreidler, who he said was questioning distillers about their support of the union, that retaliation against workers and interrogation about the union was against the law.

Following the meeting, Kreidler wrote to Freeberg that management declined the workers’ request to voluntarily recognize the union and instead would wait and support an election to be held by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Subsequently, Unite Here Local 17 filed a petition with the NLRB to become certified as the union representative of the Tattersall workers.

“We take a lot of pride in fostering a collaborative, inclusive and safe workplace and thought we that we had built that with our employees — as expressed by the overwhelming majority of our staff in many of their regular reviews,” Kreidler said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “That is why we were surprised to learn that some of our employees wanted to unionize.”

The NLRB process could take a month or more, which Freeberg called in an e-mail “an unacceptable delay, especially when the workers have made their choice clear.”

Not all Tattersall workers have agreed with the push to unionize. Micah Cathey, who has worked at Tattersall for almost three years and has bartended and served as a manager on duty, said he thought some of the workers were trying to take advantage of the owners.

“There’s this power in numbers and the company is vulnerable right now [mentality],” Cathey said.

The development of Tattersall’s union discussion has alarmed owners of small distilleries and breweries including those outside of Minnesota, said Jack McCraine, director of accounting and advisory firm Baker Tilly’s beverage practice in Minneapolis.

“This is very unusual, but I have gotten some calls of people here locally that are afraid it’s going to happen to them,” McCraine said.

For small breweries and distilleries like Tattersall, taprooms and tasting rooms are the most lucrative part of their business, he said.

“They need those doors opened, and they are fearful that their employees are going to hold them hostage and want to unionize,” McCraine said.

While Unite Here Local 17 does represent other bars, it doesn’t yet include any other distilleries with cocktail rooms, though the union has received calls from those at other breweries since news about Tattersall was publicized, Freeberg said.