Workers and Unions

Union House and Union Bar Cards used in earlier years. Courtesy of UniteHere.

Workers at the Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon warehouse are trying to form a union. The story has gone national with both President Biden and Senator Marco Rubio weighing in on the side of the workers. Amazon has engaged in hard-ball anti-labor tactics in the past and we can assume they will pursue that course in Alabama.

Union membership and ensuing political power has been declining for years. Labor law most often favors the employer rather than the employee. The Bessemer workers hope that if they succeed this will prompt other Amazon workers in different parts of the country to attempt unionization as well.

Here is an excerpt from Brewing Battles about the brewery workers union in the late 19th century.

In the 1870s, the number of breweries in America reached a record 4,131 and by 1890, output had risen to over 227 million barrels from 3 million at the end of the war. Although there were breweries throughout the country, the business concentrated in urban areas. Lack of appropriate refrigeration made far flung distribution of beer impossible. Demographics also played an important role. Urban areas, with their large ethnic populations, particularly German, were the perfect marketplace for brewers. As a result, certain cities, such as New York, Milwaukee, and Chicago became brewing centers. In the South beer drinking and brewing did not really take hold perhaps because of the small immigrant population there as well as persistent illegal distilling or moonshine.[1]

Urban areas had the most breweries and also the most workers. Cities became the focal point of emerging labor and union activity. In 1886 the newly founded United Brewery Workers (UBW) engaged in a boycott of Peter Doegler Brewery, Brooklyn, New York. Boycotts, as well as union labels, were major weapons in ongoing union struggles with the brewers. A mass product such as beer befitted the use of both strategies. Working class-drinkers contributed greatly to the sales of malt liquors, which they purchased from local brewers. The boycott had originated in Ireland around issues of land and rent. Irish-American radicals adopted the concept of social ostracism which was the foundation of the tactic. The boycott was one element in the social adaptation of immigrants to their new world. Boycotts, parades, and mass demonstrations “provided opportunities for immigrant workers to participate in familiar patterns of protest and recreation.”[2] Pervasive in labor struggles in the 1880s, boycotts and the practice of social ostracism often went hand-in-hand. Both worked best in neighborhoods and small communities and helped foster consumer consciousness. The UBW strove to increase class consciousness.

The new union successfully negotiated a contract with the Brewers Association in the spring of 1886 which gave workers a weekly wage of $15 to $18 for a six day week, 10 hours a day. The young organization had certainly gained an “extraordinary victory.”[3]

1886 was a good year for brewery workers nationwide as unions developed in Baltimore, Chicago, New Jersey, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco, and Buffalo. Many of the unions operated under the auspices of the Knights of Labor. In California Alfred Fuhrman, a sailor and the Federated Trades Council organized the Brewers’ and Maltsters’ Union of the Pacific Coast. Through a boycott of one San Francisco brewery, Fuhrman organized workers in five companies and achieved support throughout the Coast area.[4]

Brewery workers used tactics like the boycott and the union label to encourage workers from other industries to support their struggles with management. The UBW sought to build a strong union and to fully legitimate organized labor in the brewing industry. Towards that end, in conjunction with boycotts, the brewery workers and other unions promoted the concept of “union labor” which implied cooperation with pro-union management against anti-union owners. The average brewery laborer had a hard and grueling life before the advent of the union movement yet the UBW won changes in working conditions, hours, and wages more easily than they did advancements in recognition and jurisdiction. The early successes of the union in gaining ten hour days and increased wages in various cities served as the prelude to ten years of fighting with the brewers and the Brewers Association for union legitimacy.

Many unions formed in the 1880s evolved from strong craft heritages and traditions. Brewing, in many ways, was a traditional occupation; brewers certainly sought to present their business to the public in this light. Yet, at least since the Civil War, brewing required primarily unskilled and thus replaceable labor. The second convention of the UBW recognized this fact of life. Although the union strongly supported the hiring of experienced brewery workers over inexperienced ones, the convention proposed an inclusive union for all workers and trades in the industry; an industrial union. Organizing all the workers in an industry made it more difficult for management to break strikes. Thus the UBW consisted of beer-drivers, maltsters, firemen, and engineers, and became the first industrial union in the country to survive. This commitment to industrial unionism would lead to chronic jurisdictional difficulties with other unions and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The union sought to organize all workers in the industry, yet it did not consider distillery workers as part of its jurisdiction. On this point the union agreed with the brewers’ view of division within the liquor industry.[5]

[1] For information about moonshine and illicit distilling in the South after the Civil War, see Wilbur R. Miller, Revenuers & Moonshiners: Enforcing Federal Liquor Law in the Mountain South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

[2] Michael A. Gordon, “The Labor Boycott in New York City, 1880-1886,” Labor History, 16 (Spring 1975), 194.

[3] Schlüter, The Brewing Industry 117; Gordon, “The Labor Boycott in New York City,” 213.

[4] Schlüter, The Brewing Industry, p 117-127; Ira Cross, A History Of the Labor Movement in California, 191-192.

[5] James Morris, Conflict Within the AFL, A Study of Craft Versus Industrial Unionism, 1901–1938, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958), 20. Another name for the UBW was National Union of United Brewery Workmen of the United States.