When the Burgerville Workers Union signed their first official union contract, they all gathered in the basement of a Southeast Portland Victorian to celebrate. In the last two years, this particular basement has become a hangout for Portland labor organizers and activists; it’s where burgeoning unions and organizations have met to discuss next steps, talk through strategy, and toast to victories won. Up a flight of stairs, however, sits the wooden counter of the Workers Tap, a new beer bar and community space in the heart of Southeast Portland. The Workers Tap has only officially been open for a matter of weeks, but it’s vying to become a true public house for the city’s leftists.
Walking into the Workers Tap, its status as a hub for labor organizers isn’t exactly a secret. Scenes from Oregon’s labor movement hang on the walls of its various drinking nooks, including the small front room home to the bar’s 19 taps. On the top floor, a small library is stocked with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Howard Zinn, and Ernesto Laclau, which patrons can read there or check out at the bar. In the basement space, which community groups can rent out for free, a large Democratic Socialists of America poster is plastered to the southern wall.
Workers Tap is collectively owned, but the idea came from Connor Smith, known for his work with the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Smith moved from Chicago to Portland six years ago out of interest in the Portland beer scene. While getting involved in different political organizations and activist groups, he noticed that finding spaces to meet became difficult — especially free ones. He and three other activists, including DSA ecosocialist Emily Castle, bought a former office space two years ago, slowly renovating the converted Victorian for the future bar while organizers gathered in the basement. “Labor unions and activists have been using this as a meeting space for years,” Smith says. “Now they just come up and buy beer afterward.”
The ownership structure of Workers Tap is unlike many others in town: Profits are evenly split between the four owner-employees, and all major decisions are put to a vote. Tips are evenly split between the people who work that day, and everyone gets complete control over their own schedules — if the team can’t find someone to cover a shift, the bar closes. “A lot of times, you’ll see something that says, ‘employee-owned,’ and it’s totally fake. They’re making essentially what they would be making and they have no control over the business,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of people saying, ‘No one wants to work anymore,’ but if they have an ownership stake and a percentage of profits, it’s not really a problem.”
The beer at Workers Tap is no afterthought: Smith is a major beer nerd, and the tap list shows off some of his favorites. As opposed to leaning heavily into IPAs, the taps generally feature European-style and high-ABV beers in the bottle conditioned, barrel-aged world — things like strong ales and sours, stouts and porters. Currently, the taps include Oregon standbys like Pfriem pilsner and Zoigl-Red, as well as harder-to-find beers from around the state. Smith is a big fan of Bend’s Monkless Belgian Ales, the 2020 mid-size brewpub of the year at the Great American Beer Festival; Monkless is surprisingly rare on Portland menus, but Workers Tap is currently pouring both its Four Devils and Meet Your Maker, golden and dark strong ales, respectively. At the moment, there aren’t any union breweries on the tap list, but he hopes that changes.
“Currently, the union breweries are the really big ones,” he says. “If there were local union beers, we’d have them on tap... Maybe those workers will end up meeting in our basement.”
Workers Tap is open for indoor and outdoor drinking at 101 SE 12th Avenue.