Drinking On the Job? I’ll Show You Drinking On the Job

The labor movement in turn of the century Chicago: fighting for fair pay, reasonable wages… and for brewery employees, lots and lots of beer.

RedEye has a piece about the return of booze to the modern workplace:

In a contemporary version of “Mad Men” and its bibulous ad executives, more dot-coms are embracing the idea of drinking at work.

I’m always a bit mystified when elements of Mad Men are used as workplace models, thinking as I do that it’s about as appealing a depiction of an industry as The Wages of Fear.

Anyway, if a thing happens, you can assume it’s been done more so by your forefathers. While reading up on beer culture in early Chicago, I came across regular strikes, and the threat of them, in the brewing industry. No surprise there; the late 19th century was a busy time in labor activism. Headlines like this weren’t uncommon:

1886 through 1888 in particular was a troubled time for breweries and labor, as the threat of strikes hit New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Cincinnati. What was the beef? In Chicago, in 1886, the demands included the length of the working day (ten); wages ($65 a month in the kettle/fermenting room, or about $1500 today); the number of apprentice brewers permitted (hey, they were fighting about intern labor even then); circumstances under which employees can be fired. The usual bargaining agreement stuff, same as it ever was.

Oh, and free beer: “every employee shall have his free beer daily.”

After five hours of negotiation—ok, maybe not quite the same as it ever was—the union and the brewers knocked out an agreement, which specified among other things how the men would get their free beer:

“Times for beer shall be: 6, 9, 11, 2, and 4 o’clock, not to exceed three glasses at a time.”

That’s fifteen glasses a day, beginning at six in the morning. Then again, attitudes towards beer were a little different, as the Tribune editorialized in 1872 regarding the “lager-beer war” and the enforcement of Sunday temperance:

Intoxicating liquors are not sold (or only rarely) at the beer-saloons. The records of the past twenty years show that crime neither originates nor results from the sale of beer. The closing of the beer-saloon, therefore, contributes nothing toward the stoppage of crime, while it directly infringes upon a palpable personal right. It is just as foolish to tell a German that he shall not drink beer as to tell an American that he shall not drink coffee, or a Frenchman that he shall not drink claret. Beer is the national beverage of the German. He has drank it daily from youth up. It is the bread and meat of the peasant, and as indispensable to him as water to the American laborer. No question of right or wrong is involved in its use. High and low, rich and poor, children and adults, the Emperor and the peasant, the minister and his flock, priest and bishop, saint and sinner, all use it alike as a habit and a necessity of life, weekday and Sunday, and, to say to the German that his daily beverage is intoxicating in character, and is flooding the community with crimes, is just as absurd and unjust as it would be to say to the American that his use of tea and coffee is deleterious to the public morals, and must, therefore, be stopped.

While it’s obviously no longer a civil-rights issue, perhaps the worm is turning back.

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