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Union Craft Brewing becomes worker-owned

Chris Attenborough, who is Union Craft Brewing’s director of creative engagement and also a new employee owner, at the brewery’s Baltimore facility. Courtesy of Jordan August.

Union Craft Brewing is the latest Baltimore business and first Maryland brewery to switch to a worker ownership model, the Baltimore taproom and brewery announced Tuesday.  

The new model grants ownership shares to employees — whether they be full- or part-time — who have been with the brewery, located in Baltimore’s Medfield neighborhood, for five years. An inaugural group of worker-owners, who were recently granted ownership shares, is made up of six employees who have been with the company for five years or longer, including several of the breweries managerial-level staff members. About six more employees will hit their five-year anniversary and be offered ownership shares in the coming year, according to brewery co-founder Adam Benesch.  

Through the program, the majority of the company will belong to its employees, according to Union’s announcement. 

The founders of the brewery, which opened in 2011, have long been interested in establishing a worker ownership model at the company, Benesch said.

“Over the past few years, and certainly the pandemic … we realized, traditional employment models just didn’t solve all the problems that our employees were facing,” he said. 

They were eventually able to launch the program, dubbed the Beer Unites Employee Ownership Program, when Benesch and fellow co-founder Jon Zerivitz acquired the shares of a previous owner.  

Benesch said the main goals of the program are to reward the brewery’s long-time employees for their hard work and dedication to the company, as well as to include employees’ voices more prominently in the leadership of the company. 

“That’s the main part of this: providing that path for your team to have a voice and … to have the know-how to be able to lead and find ways to grow and accomplish whatever your goals are. And also, to help define what success is,” he said. 

Union Craft Brewing co-founder Adam Benesch leads state officials on a tour of the new Union
Collective brewery.

By giving Union’s employee owners a more prominent role within the company, Benesch hopes they will be more willing to speak up about anything that’s troubling them, whether it be a new product or an element of the company’s culture. That’s especially important now, considering Union faced significant scrutiny last year when an employee, whose name was not made public, was accused of sexual harassment via an Instagram post. A complaint about the harassment hadn’t been made to the brewery, Benesch said in a Baltimore Sun article at the time, and the company had launched an investigation after seeing the social media post. 

While that incident didn’t contribute directly to Union’s decision to switch to an employee ownership model, Benesch said that misconduct is one example of a situation in which he hopes employees will now feel more comfortable speaking out. 

“That certainly got us thinking more about how create a more equitable company, and part of that is ownership,” he said. 

Union joins a number of Baltimore companies that have become worker-owned in recent years. A Few Cool Hardware Stores, a company that owns three Ace Hardware Stores in Baltimore, took the plunge last August. Pizza restaurant and bar Joe Squared re-opened last year as a worker cooperative after having been closed for months during the pandemic. Other companies, like Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, have operated under worker-ownership models since their inception; now a Baltimore landmark, Red Emma’s opened as a cooperative in 2004. 

Benesch hopes Union, along with Baltimore’s other employee-owned businesses, will encourage more businesses in the area to follow their lead and explore employee-ownership as a potential business model. According to Benesch, the first step in deciding whether to switch to such a model, as a business owner, is to ensure that doing so aligns well with your company’s priorities and values. 

“You need to … believe in your people, and believe in the benefits of employee ownership,” he said. 

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