"Our guys are behind your father. We need him in there."
That’s what Dick Yuengling, the controversial owner of the county’s oldest brewery said to Eric Trump when he toured the 187-year-old, family-owned brewery this week. Almost immediately there were calls for a boycott from scads of lifelong Yuengling drinkers.
WHY IT MATTERS
For most of the country, it probably doesn’t. But for anyone who grew up in Pennsylvania drinking “lager,” the Yuengling Brewery has been as evocative of home as scrapple, chicken pot pie, and fighting with your parents about fracking. And whenever Yuengling opens a new state for distribution as part of their apparent 250-year national expansion plan, the expatriates get a little nutty. As someone who moved from PA to Illinois 10 years ago, I’m highly aware of the Western distribution borders.
But what’s always made Yuengling more than just another regional brewery has been the family itself, and the stances they've taken. Dick Yuengling, the fifth generation owner, is still the figurehead, with three of his four daughters—Jennifer Yuengling-Franquet, Wendy Yuengling-Baker, and Deborah Yuengling-Ferhat—still in the grooming stages for taking over the operation.
After introducing the iconic Lager in 1987, they purchased the old Stroh Brewery Company in Tampa, Florida, and established their east coast stronghold producing around three million barrels of beer. Last year, they joined the BA’s “craft brewer” designation as the organization went recruiting for volume players after setting their sites on a 20% by 2020 plan—even as some of their biggest brewers were forced out after acquisitions disqualified them. It was a move that tilted some heads.
But even as their loyal fans spread the good word across the country, and their distribution map gradually increased (much to the chagrin of brands like Budweiser, Brooklyn, and Sam Adams, who actively compete with the brewery for lager handles), the ethics of the Yuengling operation started coming under scrutiny.
Now, let me say this before we dig in: any business, big or small, is in a constant negotiation with the government and its complex regulations. And alcohol manufacturers face some of the biggest hurdles. But in Pennsylvania, there’s a long-standing tension between the exploitation of resources and labor, and the capitalistic endeavors of business, that trades in the rhetorical aesthetic of There Will Be Blood. Pennsylvania has been debating regulations and commerce since before most states existed. And as a subsequent home to the mining industry, steel production, and rail transport, labor and environmental laws have a deeper meaning there than in most places. So when I cite the following behaviors by Yuengling, I’m not simply pointing out that a brewery broke some rules, or violated a sense of community and got a slap on the wrist. I could probably find similar violations here and there among many brewers across the country. Rather, I’m pointing to a pattern of behavior that has made Yuengling a bit of a pariah among Pennsylvania businesses, and Pennsylvania beer drinkers, for some time now due to their exploitation of natural resources, labor tactics, and openly withholding tax dollars that support the communities where their customers live.
Here’s why the unofficial Trump endorsement makes perfect sense. And god bless them, they probably didn't even mean to make it a thing. But here we are.
After experiencing phenomenal growth in the 1990s on the back of the 1987 introduction of the Lager, Yuengling was operating three breweries—and its labor force had grown quickly to support it. A dispute between the Teamsters and the brewery began in 2006.
Reportedly, Dick told the union workers to “read between the lines” as he started lobbying the state government to move to a “right to work” state, which critics say is a disaster for organized labor and enables business owners to bully their employees on issues like wages and benefits. Dick, now a billionaire, made his intentions clear when union members say he threatened to shut down the brewery and move it to another state with labor laws more favorable to his business. In an area of Pennsylvania once riddled with union strikes going back more than 100 years, the historic battle ruptured along some old fault lines and workers boycotted the brewery. Not to mention that a brewery older than a third of the actual country was threatening to leave home to pursue cheaper and more flexible labor, even in the midst of its biggest growth period. Pottsville was on the verge of losing one its last remaining skilled-labor employers, and it didn't take a corporate acquisition to force the issue. This was a family-owned business.
“All the family’s money was made selling beer to coal miners and other union members,” said one union member at the time.
According to the EPA, from 2008-2015 Yuengling violated Clean Water Act requirements by discharging industrial waste into publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities. For this 8-year-long violation, the company settled for $10M for 141 separate violations. That public waterway? The Schuylkill River, which provides drinking water to 1.5 million people. This is a river that’s been under re-vitalization since Benjamin Franklin left funds devoted to the effort in his will.
“It is vital that companies using municipal wastewater treatment facilities strictly follow pretreatment guidelines and permit limits for their wastewater. It is what good neighbors expect, and it is what the law requires,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden in the settlement release.
In 2013, the city of Philadelphia made it clear that Yuengling owed it $6.6M in back taxes. This came at a time when the city was going into a collection phase on any outstanding debts as a result of budget crisis. For his part, Dick claimed the city was just trying to make an example out of him, and that it had more to do with bad spending than taxes owed. But other breweries doing business in the city—his competitors—had paid the tax without a problem.
“Government has spent more money than they have and they’re just coming after everybody to try to tax them to recoup some of the inept spending that they’ve done,” he said at the time.
Regardless of Dick’s feelings on the city’s spending habits, simply ignoring your taxes—and not complying with an audit—while competitors pay to keep the lights on, inspired another round of Yuengling backlash.
THE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
Anyone who says money isn't a driving factor in their own brewery is either lying to you or lying to themselves. So it's really a matter of degree to which the pursuit of money will drive your business—and what loses to that pursuit—that helps customers decide if you're a contributor to their community, an exploiter of that community, or somewhere in between.
Dick's made it clear that he'll call anywhere home if they're willing to give him what he wants in terms of tax breaks and open labor laws.
"Some states are very economically friendly,” he said. “We don’t necessarily base business decisions on incentives like that. But if they are going to give them to somebody, we would stand there and take them.”
But he also cites job-making as a primary motivator. “Pennsylvania is a great location. But it’s not very business-friendly. You look for fair tax breaks, fair taxation. And the bottom line is more jobs. That’s what it’s all about.”
SO, ABOUT THAT TRUMP ENDORSEMENT...
As a PA native, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to drink a Yuengling without the off flavors of their family’s exploitations coming through in the finish. To some extent, I’m comfortable with the idea that capitalists will be capitalists. But the context of Yuengling busting unions in Pottsville where so many of our historical labor battles were fought was a bit much. Dumping pollution into the Schuylkill and leaving it for someone else to clean up was a deal breaker for me—my experience of PA's natural beauty is what aches in my bones. But tax evasion that holds a city’s budget and critical services hostage as you protect your billions and watch your competitors pay up, and claim it's part of some higher ideal you hold the world to. Yup, that there is the stuff of Trump.
Dick Yuengling: Tax Deadbeat or Atlas Shrugging? [Huffington Post]
Philly Seeks $6.6M In Back Taxes From Yuengling [Law 360]
Beer Billionaire Yuengling Blasted for Right-to-Work Support [IBEW]
Teamsters foaming over ejection at Yuengling [Pittsburgh Post Gazette]
Yuengling To Pay Nearly $10M To Settle Pollution Allegations [Consumerist]
Yuengling to Upgrade Environmental Measures to Settle Clean Water Act Violations at Two PA Breweries [EPA.GOV]