05 Sep Happy Labor Day, From 1926
Goodbye long, lazy evenings on Chicago’s magnificent rooftop bars, booze cruises on Lake Michigan, and cold brews in Wrigley’s friendly confines—well, maybe we have another month of those beers. Labor Day is the traditional marker of the end of summer and all that is good in the world, even though on Labor Day we are supposed to honor the labor organizers that gave us all safe, sanitary, endurable working conditions.
And so it was in the late summer and early fall of 1926. Like now, ambitious politicians were hitting the streets to campaign for the upcoming elections, including Chicago’s own George E. Brennan. Brennan was campaigning for the United States Senate seat when he announced that Prohibition was targeted at laborers. Those very same folks that gave us civilized working conditions were the target of the Prohibition movement?
In an interesting argument, Brennan linked the dry laws to reduced output of discontented workers and the establishment’s financial backing of the Anti-Saloon League. It had nothing to do with morals or the public interest, he claimed, but rather was nothing more than big business trying to turn its workers into dependable machines. Dependable machines? In the 1920’s? Did sober employees constitute technology? Even machines, Brennan argued, were allowed rest breaks!
Keep an employee happy, i.e. let employees enjoy a happy hour, at the very least, would make all workers more productive, Brennan argued. Imposing strict dietary regulations on employees was the next logical leap, according to labor organizers and Brennan. What if a healthier diet may also make an employee more productive?
Given that the least productive American workday is the Monday following Super Bowl Sunday, it’s possible employers were on to something. But Brennan raises an interesting argument for the slippery slope of federal legislation. If employers can buy regulation of what employees can drink, what’s next? A sleep schedule? An exercise regimen? Physical fitness tests? Employee health insurance plans—oh, no, a step too far? That’s what makes the entire argument that legalizing alcohol would upend productivity in the workplace seem ridiculous?
Brennan’s story is far more fascinating than his campaign. At thirteen years old he lost his leg because he was covering as a switchman in a coal mine because the employee that was supposed to work that shift, was at home drunk. It was, after all, the day after pay day. There is no possible way to know how this early incident made Brennan pro-labor and anti-Prohibition.
Brennan lost that Senate race to Frank Smith and died before the end of Prohibition. Smith won the election, but the U.S. Congress refused to seat him because of rampant fraud in his campaign. Because, Illinois!
A sad end, a little political corruption, and a Hell of a story, and on behalf of all Chicagoans that enjoy one last summer cocktail on the first Monday in September, Cheers to you, George Brennan!
Written by Amy Williams