The Workers Unite
(Unseen by the masses who consumed Cincinnati's many beers during the nineteenth century, brewery workers toiled ceaselessly to produce the beloved amber fluid. With a typical workday of twelve to sixteen hours, six days per week and with minimal compensation, Cincinnati brewery labor of the late 1800s took note of the increasing profits which accrued to their entrepreneurial bosses and sought to augment their share of the reward. This excerpt from Over the Barrel, Volume One illustrates how conflict between brewery workers and management became heated from the 1880s onward, despite the fact that they maintained cordial relations away from the workplace.)
When the Cincinnati brewing industry began its first significant period of expansion and development during the 1850s and 1860s, good relations prevailed between brewery owners and their work force. Many entrepreneurs ate lunch with their laborers and spent time with them in the saloons after work, on Sundays, and on holidays. Since many brewers and brewery employees were German immigrants who shared a common background, strong ties bound them together in a social setting. Further, many brewery owners lived on the same street as their workers, and even arranged for housing for laborers as part of the work agreement. Owners, managers, and employees lived close to the brewery, with contact frequent and, in many cases, pleasant. But in other instances a darker picture emerged of the relations between brewery labor and management, due to long work hours and physically rigorous working conditions set by owners in search of a competitive edge. As each side acted to further its own sphere of influence, divisions became apparent and conflict grew inevitable.
As was the case with brewery owners on a national basis, Cincinnati alemakers first organized informally during the 1860s, and area breweries sent representatives to the national congresses of the United States Brewers' Association from its earliest days. Despite the coalition of local ale brewers, Cincinnati brewery owners did not organize on a permanent basis until the 1870s, and even then in several different forms. The Cincinnati Brewers' Association was established before 1874 and gained momentum in the wake of a price war instigated by tavern owners in 1878. Given the exceedingly large number of saloons that operated in Cincinnati-particularly in Over-the-Rhine-in the mid- to late nineteenth century, price wars occurred on a regular basis, in an effort to drive weaker competition out of business, raise additional revenue in the long run, and exercise greater control over a lucrative market. The Brewers' Association subsequently acted as a central organization which, among its functions, blacklisted saloonkeepers who failed to pay for their beer and helped establish stable prices. In fairness to Cincinnati saloons, area brewery owners were not immune from the effects of similarly spirited competition: in 1892 infighting weakened brewer unity, when the Jackson Brewing Company sold beer to customers who were in arrears to another member of the collective. A Cincinnati judge ruled that brewers were free to withdraw from their agreement or refuse to abide by its rules, under the premise that the contract stood contrary to public policy and in restraint of free trade.
In 1881 the Brewers' Association reorganized as the Brewers' Protective Association. As the name suggests, the function of the new group was to safeguard the interests of Cincinnati-area brewers, particularly in an economic context. In the aftermath of the change in title, and to a degree focus, area beer prices exhibited little change and the organization was successful into the 1890s. On February 1, 1897 Cincinnati brewers made a new attempt to organize, when they formed a local branch of the Brewers' Board of Trade, also known as the Brewers' Exchange. The collective had multiple functions, most notably to curb abuses within the retail business, particularly in the case of disreputable saloons. Prominent among charges made against the drinking establishments was a tendency to overcharge for beer and not report extra profits to the brewers, as well as the sale of beer from other breweries at reduced prices. The Board of Trade also served as the official voice of the brewers during a protracted strike in 1902, as well as during later periods when it dealt with unions and their representatives. The organization further protected Cincinnati brewers in areas where collective action helped limit competition, but its efforts met with only limited success. There were few ironclad accords, but instead a series of gentlemen's agreements, effective only to the extent that members were willing to cooperate. When fellow brewers failed to comply, especially in the case of price wars, the weaknesses of the organization were exposed for all to see. In later years Cincinnati brewers exhibited greater cohesiveness, particularly when threatened with the passage of prohibition legislation; the collective influence also extended to the state level, with the establishment of the Ohio Brewers' Association, Cincinnati. Organized on December 19, 1895, the group maintained an office at 22 Garfield Place, counted fifty-six members from Cincinnati and elsewhere in the state by 1910, and held business meetings on the second Thursday of each month.
Brewery workers also organized during the late nineteenth century, albeit for totally different reasons. As part of the national labor movement, union leaders and representatives attempted to gain concessions from owners and management with regard to working hours, workplace conditions, and wage levels. In Cincinnati as elsewhere, brewery employees became more receptive to unionization and collective bargaining in the immediate post-Civil War period, due in large part to wage and working hour concerns and particularly from the 1870s onward, upon the expansion of brewery facilities and the introduction of new machinery. The significance of this development was not lost upon area brewery workers: in the aftermath of the technological revolution, brewery owners spent more money to modernize and install new machinery and less money on the workers who operated it. With some justification brewery workers began to detect a threat to their jobs-even their way of life-with increased mechanization, when machines began to replace some of the traditionally human functions in a modernized brewery. The viewpoint of brewery employees was legitimized in part by statistics that demonstrated an upward tendency in the ratio of capital investment to labor costs in Cincinnati breweries during the late 1800s. Owners countered with census figures, showing that the number of workers had risen significantly despite mechanization: national brewery employment which stood at 2,347 in 1850 had risen to 12,443 by 1870, and 26,220 a decade later. Nevertheless, there is little question that during the late nineteenth century Cincinnati brewery workers began to feel increasingly isolated from the employers with whom they had been so close, given their vastly different wants and needs.
A further complication arose when brewery employees were reapportioned in the workplace. Different functions and departmental assignments obliged longtime colleagues and new friends to separate and divide, to perform diverse operations in specialized parts of the growing facility. Many workers began to feel that the machine age had depersonalized the modern brewery, making it more stressful than had been the case just a decade earlier. It also did not escape the notice of brewery labor that owners had become very wealthy as entrepreneurs, but generally remained frugal in their business practices, benevolent toward charitable causes but in many ways unwilling to share their newfound wealth with the work force. Beginning in the 1870s labor increasingly took note of the immense profits which accrued to brewery owners, and in turn demanded what it believed to be a fair share of the rewards of success. For decades the workers had been compensated at a modest level: in 1850 Cincinnati brewery employees earned a median wage of $278.00 per year, a figure in many cases deceptively high due to the inclusion of brewery officials and foremen, whose compensation rates were considerably higher. By the time board and other relevant fees were deducted from wages, many workers found less than twelve dollars-even as little as four-remaining in their monthly pay packet. According to the accounts of the Sandman-Lackman Brewery, workers were paid between fifteen and eighteen dollars per month, dependent upon their level of experience, and in various cases also received housing relief or compensation. In October 1855 new employees usually began at fourteen dollars per month; in contrast Philip Amman, presumably a brewmaster, was given a $35.00 per month starting salary beginning November 10, 1855.
By 1860 the cost of local brewery labor had risen, according to Hamilton County figures that showed the prevailing rate in the immediate pre-Civil War period. Throughout the county, and primarily in Cincinnati as its largest city, 319 workers were employed in thirty-eight area breweries, with annual wages of $124,068-an average of $388.93 per employee per year, forty dollars more than the statewide level. By 1870 Cincinnati-area brewery worker wages had increased to the still moderate figure of $543 per year, or about $1.80 per day during the course of a 300-day work year. The rate was notably lower than that of many other Cincinnati laborers during the same period; brewery employees were paid less than most other skilled workers and earned only marginally more than unskilled day laborers. (see Table 6.3) To make matters worse, average yearly earnings for area brewery workers dropped in the wake of industrialization, and the economic crisis of 1873-1876, to $433.62 during 1880. The downward trend in wages was visible not only in the brewing industry, but also in other local labor sectors. From 1872 to 1881 average wages for carriage makers dropped from fifteen to thirty-two percent; those of furniture makers fell twenty-three to forty-three percent; builders' wages were reduced by sixteen to thirty-four percent; and compensation for cigar makers fell 23.1 percent. Day laborers similarly were affected, earning almost twenty-four percent less during the same period.
Salary issues represented a significant concern among brewery employees, but the mistreatment of workmen was no less important to many. While most brewmasters and foremen got along well with their workers, complaints also were registered that some managers physically abused their charges. The frequency of such activity is a matter of debate, but a later, labor-based account of the Cincinnati brewery workplace accused management of regularly beating workers during the 1880s, an act supposedly sanctioned by brewery owners in the modern brewery workplace:
The boss was probably brewmaster who worked side by side with his fellow workers and handled the situation as a monarch of a realm, whose word was law. Sometimes he was kindly and sometimes he was otherwise, the degree of his patience and irritability depending on his liver and general state of well-being. He no doubt would say a kind word to a brewery workman now and then. But these were also interlarded with cuffs and kicks. And as the learned historians record that period, "cuffs and blows were every day occurrences."
A little later, when again following the general trend of industrial development, the brewing industry became concentrated in larger units, those employers who survived became great capitalists and transferred to their foremen the right to beat the men.
Favoritism also affected brewery workers who found themselves on the wrong side of brewmasters and foremen. In many cases brewmasters fixed the wages of their underlings, and pay variations of a dollar a week-in an industry that seldom paid more than five to six dollars per week-were common between those workers toward whom the brewmaster felt kindly disposed, and those toward whom he did not.
Nevertheless, many neutral observers considered brewery workers to be well-treated, particularly when non-wage issues were presented. From 1872 to 1881, in the midst of an economic downturn, average housing costs in Cincinnati fell 11.2 percent, from a high of $120 per year down to $106.50, an occurrence which in turn kept down the cost of living. Furthermore, although Cincinnati brewery workers were paid less than workers in other areas, many benefitted from low-cost housing offered by brewery owners, often in outer reaches of the brewery facility itself or, more commonly, on upper floors of brewery-owned buildings which housed saloons. Of a prevailing brewery wage of thirty-five to forty dollars per month by the 1870s, a nominal rate of approximately five dollars was deducted from the pay packet of the ordinary worker, offsetting the difference in salary levels between local brewery workers and their counterparts in other fields. But despite the apparent advantages offered by brewer-sponsored housing, a large portion of the brewery labor sector wanted to eliminate the arrangement. In later negotiations brewery employees made a point of asking for freedom to live where they chose; many felt that by living in owner-provided residences, they in effect were kept under surveillance, in an effort to determine who had union sympathies and who could be intimidated.
Still other observers disagreed with the labor perspective that brewery workers did not receive adequate financial reimbursement. According to an outside commentator in 1894, Cincinnati brewing industry wages were "good, from that of the brewmaster at from $15,000 a year to $7,500, down to the common laborer, who gets $1.50 per day and all the beer he can drink." Another source echoed those figures when it noted that brewmasters-by virtue of the importance of their trade-earned approximately $10,250 per year in area breweries, or almost thirty-five dollars per day; while low-level brewery workers took in only $450 per year, or $1.50 per day. Doubtless skilled brewery workers earned more money than common laborers, yet many of those with training and previous experience received no more than about $750 to $800 per year, an amount which illustrated the sizeable compensation gap which existed between tiers of brewery employment, not to mention a vast difference from the wealth exhibited by owners during the prosperous 1880s.
Labor also took issue with brewery owners with regard to work schedules. During the mid- to late 1800s a Cincinnati-area brewery worker committed himself to his job for a full day, from fourteen to sixteen hours per day Monday through Saturday, and sometimes from six to eight hours on Sundays as well. For the better part of the nineteenth century a typical Cincinnati brewery workday began before dawn and-inclusive of breaks, breakfast, and lunch-continued until well into the evening, as a first-hand account from the period made clear:
Work began at five o'clock in the morning, and with the exception of an hour for breakfast and for dinner, it lasted until six in the evening. At eight the men went to work again, in order to finish their floor and kiln work, which lasted until half past nine or ten o'clock.
According to Ohio labor statistics, as late as 1908 most brewery employees could expect to work at least eight to nine hours per day, and in the case of watchmen and ice pullers an average of 10.6 and 11.7 hours respectively. Yet the rigor of the long hours was compounded by harsh working conditions labor was said to encounter on a daily basis. By the late 1870s accusations gained greater frequency that foremen beat their workers regularly, and that brewery owners encouraged them to drink excessive amounts of the free beer available so that they could be exploited. One later source echoed the charge that local owners and managers sought to take advantage of their workers through the power of their product:
One thing the brewery owners were generous with, and that was beer. They urged the workers to drink unlimited quantities of that beverage, as the hard labor and unbearable conditions to which they were subjected would have caused a revolt of the workers much earlier if their minds were not kept in a continuous fog by the enormous consumption of the liquid. But even here the generosity of the employers was not exactly open-handed. Usually the amount of free beer furnished the workers was taken into consideration when fixing wages.
Verification of such conduct is sketchy, but indisputable was that working conditions for brewery employees were hard and demanding, even in the wake of the technological revolution.
In the belief that they could better their situation through collective action, and following a failed attempt to organize a year or two earlier, Cincinnati brewery workers finally succeeded in the establishment of the Brauer Gesellen Union-the first organization in the United States devoted exclusively to brewery labor concerns-in December 1879. The early viability of the union was tied directly to how many workers were willing to join and participate actively; given the growing dissatisfaction with owner-labor relations, membership drives generally enjoyed success during the 1880s. John Alexander served as the first union president, and the organization soon joined the Central Trades Assembly, the recently reorganized central labor body of Cincinnati. In early interactions between Cincinnati brewery labor and management, the laws of supply and demand went a long way toward the determination of how successful the union and its workers were with their demands. Despite the warm feelings many Cincinnati brewers had for their workers, there remained a bottom line to attend to. When it came to matters of money, brewers quickly illustrated why they had become successful and wealthy: during the course of an 1888 strike, John Hauck made clear his opinion that "the laborer is worthy of his hire" and no more, a perspective doubtless shared by many other local brewers. A wedge thus had been driven between labor and management, and each side felt threatened to some degree by the other. Animosity in discussions became common, as workers attempted to improve their situation and owners tried to maintain the status quo.
By the summer of 1881 the Brauer Gesellen Union was ready for the first time to confront the owners. As part of a proposed agreement, labor spelled out four primary demands: 1) a reduction of the standard workday from thirteen hours to ten-and-three-quarters; 2) a minimum wage of sixty dollars per month; 3) the right to obtain lodging wherever a worker chose; and 4) a reduction of Sunday work hours from eight to four, with twenty-five cents overtime pay for each hour worked in excess of four. The Cincinnati Brewers' Association countered on July 13 with a proposal for labor to put in a standard twelve-hour work day, with two one-hour breaks for morning and midday meals and two fifteen-minute rest periods. The Association left the matter of wages-according to one local reporter already ten to twenty dollars per month higher than those paid in other brewing centers and "very detrimental to the Cincinnati brewers in their competition with other cities"-to the discretion of the individual breweries. Finally, the Brewers' Association stated that they could do nothing about Sunday hours. Thus the brewers acceded only to a reduction in hours worked per day, but held their ground on all other issues in dispute.69 Further negotiations failed to reach a compromise; as a result the union called a strike and proclaimed a boycott against non-union beer, specifically beer from breweries with a union membership rate of less than fifty percent.
In response to the strike, local brewery owners brought in non-skilled laborers from around Cincinnati, and experienced brewers from midwestern cities such as St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, as well as locations as far afield as New York. In a July 1881 interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Christian Moerlein commented on one such shipment of workers, in the process making clear that local brewery owners felt the labor dispute to be well under control:
"To whom did you send?"
"The Brewers' Association."
"How many of them are there?"
"What do you pay them?"
"Ten dollars apiece."
"But what wages?"
"Oh, the same that we paid the brewers who struck-the old wages."
"Are they skilled workmen?"
"Of course. All good, competent men to do the difficult part of beer brewing."
"Then there will be no further trouble about the strike?"
"Oh, no; they'll go right to work. We shan't take the old men back. We will have hands enough."
"Then there will be no trouble about the supply of beer? No danger of a failure of crop, so to speak?"
"Not the slightest. We'll make all the beer that's wanted, and the public need not be afraid."
"Do you anticipate any trouble?"
"Oh, no; I think not."
Other brewers were equally certain that the strike would not affect beer production, regardless of the availability of replacement employees. Conrad Windisch appeared indifferent to the arrival of the New York workers, telling a reporter that "I think they come too late. It makes no difference; I will get along all right. I guess if they strike I will get our old hands; some that will go to work."
Another tactic utilized by brewers in their attempt to settle the dispute was to blacklist striking employees. The Cincinnati Enquirer published a list of dissident employees on July 20; soon thereafter Christian Moerlein declared, "I am done with the strike, and the strikers are done with me"-an altogether unsubtle indication that the brewery magnate was serious about the threat not to take back those workers who had walked away from their jobs. The attitude was easy for Moerlein to express, given that a majority of fellow brewers agreed with his position. Further, the posture echoed the mood of the city, which maintained an anti-union sentiment until well into the twentieth century: the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette had a well-known tendency to oppose organized labor, while the Cincinnati Enquirer sounded a representative tone in its coverage of the strike, stating that one brewery labor meeting at the Turner Hall "was not a stupendous assembly, and beyond a few fiery speeches made by late leaders in the defunct Socialistic upheaval in this city, nothing was accomplished."
A majority of saloonkeepers-their own business disagreements with brewery management notwithstanding-joined in on the side of the brewers. Attempts to support the union cause by Cincinnati beer vendors were highly unsuccessful, to the extent that a late July meeting designed to show sympathy with labor "didn't pan out-in other words, [it was] an inglorious fizzle, there not being enough present to make a baker's dozen." Some saloonkeepers, no less mindful of the power of management, complained that union beers were of an inferior standard. During the previous decade, beer sold at a cheaper rate during price wars had been an issue among brewers and dealers concerned about a decline in quality. To this end, a warning on the effects of such brews was issued to readers of the Merchants' and Manufacturers' Review in an 1876 article:
The quality of the beer is proportionate to the quality of the hops. The numerous substitutes for hops include some species of the pine, quassia, Walnut leaf, wormwood, bitter clover, extract of aloes, and recently pieric acid. ... they are vastly inferior to hops, and their continuous use is most likely to prove injurious. ... If the workingman cannot pay five cents for an honest glass of beer, we don't like to see him drugged for two-and-a-half-cents. ... The composition of cheap beer is calculated to increase thirst; in fact, it raises a demon on the inside that cannot be quenched, whilst "square" beer is simple, satisfying, and beneficial.
With a large work force at their disposal, continued favorable media coverage, and the support of the saloons, the brewers held a tremendous advantage, and in short order the strike and boycott were suspended. Although much damage had been done to relations between brewers and laborers, both sides noted one positive aspect of the strike: almost no violence had taken place, a characteristic which marked strikes and lockouts in several other brewing centers.
The 1881 encounter between brewery owners and workers proved not to be an isolated incident. Over the years Cincinnati brewery labor and management squared off on other occasions, although in several instances the two sides were able to find common ground. In 1887 brewers and laborers came to an agreement with relative calm and order. Among the conditions requested by labor, and accepted by owners, was a reduction in hours of employment, such that the work day ran from seven in the morning to six in the evening, with a half-hour breakfast break, a one hour dinner, and a fifteen-minute midday pause. There was also a guarantee of a minimum wage of sixty dollars per month for full-time brewery workers and the promise of only one foreman per plant, where he would be given the job based solely on merit, rather than the cronyism which had reigned in many previous cases. An additional accord addressed a long-standing issue with labor, denying brewers influence over where their employees chose to lodge. It was a triumphant moment for the brewery workers' union, which since 1881 had managed to raise wages by almost five dollars per week and reduce the workday by some five hours from Monday through Saturday, and by four hours on Sundays.
Despite the agreement of 1887, relations between Cincinnati brewery labor and management reached their lowest level to date early in the following year. On April 11, 1888 a union representative named Richter came to the Moerlein plant, to see cellar foreman Frank Wiegand and cellarhand Charles Seidel. After Richter was admitted to the brewery, the three men and several other workers talked for some time. After lunch Wiegand invited Richter into the cellar, a location strictly off-limits for non-employees; general foreman William Gerst saw the men in the cellar, ordered Richter to leave, and fired Wiegand on the spot. The next day forty of the approximately 120 Moerlein employees went on strike in a show of support for the fired cellar foreman, and union local 12 met and endorsed the actions of the strikers, a move which effectively brought the crisis to a head.
When the Moerlein concern rapidly replaced the striking workers, labor and management across the city polarized and prepared to do battle. The Brewers' Association united against the union and resolved to deal only with individual workers in subsequent negotiations. George Moerlein made clear the intentions of Cincinnati brewery management on April 18, when he proclaimed that "The brewers in the United States are making a general and concerted fight, and they will not recognize the unions any more." The decision was a springboard to a movement to break the union, in which local brewers circulated letters which abolished recognition of the brewery workers' collective. At the time some 800 Cincinnati brewery laborers were union members; those employees who refused to sign the letter were told that they could leave, a motion which created a lockout. Roughly 100 outside workers again were brought in from Indianapolis, Louisville, Dayton, Toledo, and even Chicago and St. Louis, among midwestern cities, as well as eastern brewing centers such as Pittsburgh. The union quickly called a strike at those breweries which issued the letter and announced a boycott of all nonunion beer in Cincinnati, no small accomplishment in light of the fact that many brewery workers reputedly were "in the habit of taking from 30 to 80 glasses of the amber fluid every day."
While most area brewers talked tough, several felt an acute pinch from the strike and soon expressed a willingness to take back former workers. Such a position represented a minority viewpoint; the brewers proved to have the stronger backbone for a lengthy work stoppage, having braced for the possibility by maintaining some 500,000 barrels of beer in reserve. The union-faced with a lack of funds, dwindling morale, and an ongoing inability to resolve the problem of replacement workers-gave in during July, despite the fact that saloon operators this time regularly sided with labor. Certainly there were exceptions to the rule: one Cincinnati saloonkeeper, August Trinkle, felt the wrath of the boycott when he referred to the strikers as a group of "unmitigated asses." Yet most saloon proprietors continued to have grievances with the brewers, and were more than willing to use labor in an attempt to have their own concerns addressed. Difficult as labor and management relations had become, the addition of saloon grievances rendered the process considerably more challenging to solve, and inevitably brought to the surface differences almost impossible to reconcile. The significance of the initial difficulties would take on greater importance in the 1890s and particularly during the early twentieth century, when the growing threat of Prohibition required brewery owners, laborers, and saloonkeepers to present a united front despite considerable difference of opinion.