Today in labor history: Brewery workers unite!

On this date in 1886, brewery workers in San Francisco declared a historic victory against the brewery owners. In June they had formed the Brewery Workers Union, comprised mostly of socialist German workers. Their goal was most importantly to resist the prevailing 16-18 hour workday. But they achieved much more. On July 22, 1886 the breweries admitted defeat and gave in to union demands for free beer, the closed shop, freedom to live anywhere for brewery workers (who had up until then typically lived in the brewery itself), a 10-hour day, six-day week, wages of $15-18 per week, and a board of arbitration.

The brewery workers borrowed a tactic from their fellow Irish immigrants: the boycott, which had been used in Ireland primarily around rent and land demands. The objective was to create social ostracism and support for the labor cause.

The year 1886 is, of course, historic for the American labor movement in other ways as well. It was the year of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, where the demand for a shorter work day was also led by German socialists and anarchists, and which led to the establishment of May Day as the international workers holiday.

Other brewery workers unions emerged around the same time in such cities as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and elsewhere, under the auspices of the Knights of Labor.

Another tactic embraced by the brewery workers was the use of the union label, designed to encourage the development of a mutually supportive culture among all sectors of the working class. If workers saw the union label on their bottle of beer, it could only inspire them to think about unionizing in their own shop.

Another significant characteristic of the brewery workers union is that it organized all crafts within the industry into one union – drivers, firemen, engineers, and maltsters. As such it was the first successful industrial union, which led in time to the One Big Union concept of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and later to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The close association between taverns and particular breweries led in short order to the establishment of the Hotel, Restaurant Employees and Bartenders Union in 1891, whose descendent is to this day once of the most powerful forces in the labor movement. Bars and eateries proudly displayed their union shop certificate.

On October 2, 1886, the union launched their newspaper, the Brewery Worker (Brauer-Zeitung in German), which declared itself a socialist organ. It published the following credo, which has not gone out of style well over a century later: “The abolition of classes and class government is our object.”

Adapted in part from and Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer by Amy Mittelman.


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