Delegates debated beer’s ‘intoxicating effects’ 75 years ago

This headline from The Union Advocate’s Feb. 16, 1939 edition immediately caught our eye: “Assembly Opposed To Defining Beer As Intoxicating.”

Turns out, the headline was a bit misleading. The article reported that St. Paul’s central labor body, the Trades and Labor Assembly, passed a resolution opposing a bill before the Minnesota Legislature to define so-called “three-two beer” – beverages with 3.2 percent alcohol content or less – as intoxicating.

Unions joined the brewing industry in opposing the measure, which would have placed limits on the sale of beer “for the benefit of the hard liquor interests.” Whiskey distilleries, The Advocate reported, were not nearly as unionized as breweries, which were “practically 100 percent union throughout the nation” at the time.

“Proponents of the motion declared that such a law would drive hundreds of places out of business by reason of high license fees with consequent curtailment of employment in the brewing industry,” The Advocate reported.

We’ll drink to that.

[The Union Advocate’s “This Month in the Archives” feature offers a look back at what the newspaper was reporting from 5 to 100 years ago. Our digital archives are online, searchable and free to anyone. Click here for access.]

75 Years Ago: Café owner accused paper of libel

The Advocate’s coverage of wage theft at a St. Paul eatery drew charges of libel from the establishment’s owner in February 1939.

Workers at Gentile’s Café, a union shop on Payne Avenue, signed sworn affidavits in support of The Advocate’s reporting, the newspaper reported in its Feb. 9 edition.

The affidavits confirmed owner Charles Gentile had forced employees to endorse the backs of their paychecks without seeing the amount on the front. Gentile would then cash the checks himself and return a different amount to the employees, “holding out whatever he thought the employee would approve through fear of losing his or her job.”

The claims of libel were strange, given that Gentile had already reached a settlement with the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union, which called for the café to pay $350 in back wages to its workers.

Just because Gentile had made things right with his workers, The Advocate argued, did not change the facts of the story.

“In publishing the story … the Union Advocate followed its usual course in giving publicity to an affair of vital importance to organized Labor,” The Advocate reported. “Such publications are made for the sole purpose of serving as a deterrent to others against chiseling on union agreements.”

Charles Gray, director of the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, AFL-CIO, gave a presentation at the University of Minnesota.

Charles Gray, director of the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, AFL-CIO, gave a presentation at the University of Minnesota.

25 Years Ago: Spotlight on child labor

The Union Advocate put a spotlight on child labor in its Feb. 20, 1989 edition, reporting on a speech delivered by Charles Gray, director of the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, AFL-CIO, at the University of Minnesota.

“Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse and the California Raisins can bring smiles to the faces of American youngsters. But in developing countries, these toys represent misery for the young girls and boys who spend long hours toiling to produce them,” Union Advocate Editor Barb Kucera wrote.

Gray’s speech detailed long hours, low wages and sweatshop conditions endured by children working in Asia’s developing countries, particularly China, Hong Kong and Thailand.

“An average work week for a 12-year-old girl in such a factory runs from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. The girl receives a one-hour lunch break and often sleeps right on the factory premises in makeshift dormitories housing dozens, sometimes hundreds, of children.

“During the Christmas rush to get toy orders to the United States, the young workers have been ordered to put in 24-hour shifts,” Gray said.

International political pressure, he added, would be crucial to eliminating child labor, as it can help bring about the economic change that he called “the only real solution to the problem.”

“The real solution to child labor is prosperity,” Gray said. “The key is for Mom and Dad to have a job.”

100 Years Ago: Contractors pushed for ‘open shop’

St. Paul Carpenters Union Local 87 ramped up its efforts to strike an agreement for labor peace with the city’s Master Builders association in February 1914, and The Advocate’s Feb. 27 edition documented an exchange of letters between the two sides on its front page.

Representatives of the contractors’ group, however, declined the union’s offer to meet and negotiate a new agreement, prompting charges from the union they were pushing for an “open-shop” system.

Local 87 leaders warned the contractors – and the public – that such a push would be met with stiff resistance. “It is manifest that the Carpenters’ union is opposed to any disturbance in building trades activities in St. Paul this year, and if any upheaval or unpleasantness should come the Master Builders’ association will be wholly responsible for it.”

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