September 3rd, 2018
Today is Labor Day, a day in which we honor the achievements of American workers. In 1884 Congress passed an act marking the first Monday in September Labor Day. Since then we have witnessed various incarnations of how exactly to celebrate this national holiday. Parades, once grand affairs for a multitude of eager spectators, have waned in recent decades while BBQs and beach trips seem to supplant large-scale organized festivities for most. It is the last hurrah of summer before children return to school and fall sets in.
The exact origins of Labor Day are a bit controversial, as two different labor organizers (both named McGuire- one a machinist, the other a carpenter) are named as founders. What is significant is that the origins of Labor Day, regardless of who is responsible arose from the 19th century unions organized to protect and defend workers from harsh conditions, little pay, and unfair practices. Breweries were also participants in the formation of unions, although it was a bit more complicated than it was with many other labor unions.
The National Union of Brewers was founded right here in Baltimore in 1886. The Brewery Worker was published for its members on a regular basis. The name was eventually changed to reflect all brewery laborers, not just the brewers. Despite this, not all of the members felt their interests were well served and they chose to split off and form their own separate unions. Coopers were one of the highest paid trades of the time, and they often felt at odds with the goals and practices of the brewery worker’s union. Where brewers invited new technologies- coopers often shunned such advances as compromising their tradecraft. This in large part was the impetus for the separation, and they were quickly joined by coopers from the distilling and wine industries all operating with a common goal.
What were conditions like for brewery workers when Labor Day became a national holiday? That answer truly depends on location, and ownership. Many of the breweries in the 19th century were owned by immigrants that came to America to flee persecution, compulsory military service, and famine. Many of these immigrants were German, some Irish, with a smattering of others in between. Many brewery owners paid for the passage of their workers from Bremen to Baltimore, and housed them in their homes with their families. They worked on average 12 hours a day (sometimes more) with Sunday hours extremely limited for worship, rest, and fun. Conditions were typical of the time- manual labor in often sweltering or frigid temperatures depending upon the season. The upside of this was a regular supply of beer and meals, and a roof over their heads. Beyond that the working environment was quite dependent upon the individual brewery owner.
There are many stories of Baltimore brewery owners engaged in equal opportunity employment practices long before there was an EEOC. There is also documentation of Maryland brewery owners paying for medical care for workers that were ill, or injured on the job. In some cases if workers could not be healed, owners offered a type of supplemental stipend for a period of time until that worker or his family could find other gainful employment. Make no mistake- not all brewery owners were this considerate of the best interests of their employees. There are many tales of vicious proprietors taking whips to their staff, or other such deviant practices to intimidate laborers into greater productivity, thus spawning the need for the rise of unions.
What has changed since the 19th century? There is no longer a Brewery Workers Union as it folded into the Teamsters Union in the 1960s. In fact those working in most of the local craft breweries we visit today are not affiliated with a union at all. In the modern world, conditions still vary by brewery and yes it is still sweltering in summer, and freezing in winter as is the nature of the industry. Fortunately we are seeing greater diversity in plants across the country with far better working conditions- despite the often extreme temperatures.
One thing has not changed however and that is the incredible effort that brewery workers put into making this luscious nectar of the Gods that we call beer. The pride, the craftsmanship, and the end result are a testament to those that Labor for us, for themselves, and all those that came before them in this historic industry.
Whatever you may be doing today take a moment and raise your glass to the American Brewery Worker past and present on this Labor Day.