As families slept in apartments lining the 1900 block of Forbes Avenue, a car quietly rolled past. It was the early hours of Nov. 17, 1946, and the city of Pittsburgh hadn’t gotten around to installing streetlights here.
The car stopped in front of beer distributor Ben Golomb’s store, and one window rolled down. Out came a flurry of flaming light bulbs loaded with gasoline and kerosene-soaked wicks. The Golomb storefront exploded. The car sped away, families jerked awake and a once silent street was engulfed in chaos.
There was just one fatality: a pregnant woman from across the street, who died during premature childbirth a day later. A doctor attributed her death to shock.
Mr. Golomb wasn’t a known mafia operative, nor was he running for office on a controversial platform. He was just an average beer distributor, his store one of many casualties in a 178-day union war that left Pittsburgh taps dry and threatened to starve the entire city.
The beer industry was at the heart of a war between the country’s biggest unions, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress for Industrial Organizations, and Pittsburgh was at the epicenter of the conflict. The AFL served as an umbrella group representing specific craft unions and some industry groups, while the CIO was founded in 1936 as a subgroup of the AFL devoted to broader industrial unions.
These differences seem minor, but they were anything but. The classification of brewery drivers was among the most contentious issues — did the drivers belong to a craft union, or an industrial union? The controversy revolved around which group would represent certain workers during collective bargaining negotiations.
“There has been a jurisdictional dispute between the brewery workers and the Teamsters numbering back some 40 years,” Albert Dietrich, President of Teamsters Joint Council 40 of Pittsburgh, explained to Congress in March 1947. “Convention after convention of the American Federation of Labor awarded the jurisdiction of the truck drivers in the breweries to the Teamsters. The brewery workers would not abide by that ruling.”
The Brewery Workers Union, an organization within the AFL, had argued since the early 1900s that certain delivery people fell within its jurisdiction. Because they transported materials produced by brewery workers and thus had shared interests, BWU believed they should also have common representation. In 1941, BWU leaders split from the AFL and declared the group an independent national union before switching allegiances to the CIO in July 1946.
Some of the BWU’s local chapters had argued against leaving the AFL in the first place, however, and the stage was set for a civil war. The dissenters demanded that the BWU hold a national referendum so members could choose representation for themselves. Members of Pittsburgh’s brewery industry arrived at work on Oct. 7, 1946, to fill out the following ballot:
The results were not close — 1,734 voted in favor of joining the CIO, while just 259 voted against. That divide was reflected nationally, with 31,000 in favor of CIO affiliation and 19,000 opposed.
In Pittsburgh, the majority of “no” votes came from a single chapter representing beer bottlers. Attempting to maintain its power in one of the country’s largest industrial hubs, the AFL declared that Pittsburgh’s dissenting bottlers be allowed to rejoin its membership roll and operate separately from the rest of the BWU.
“We have a contract with the brewers,” said Anthony Federoff, CIO Regional Director The Pittsburgh Press on Oct. 17, 1946. “The men are simply trying to live up to that contract and protect their jobs.”
Though the AFL had little basis for the claim, it controlled such a vast network of unions that any business relying on organized labor was vulnerable to its decisions. AFL leaders immediately took action to remind Pittsburgh of this fact, placing a total boycott on deliveries from the city’s three largest breweries: Duquesne Brewing Company, Iron City Brewing Company and Fort Pitt Brewing Company.
Picketers descended upon the production facilities within a day, throwing rocks and forming human walls in an attempt to prevent non-AFL drivers from picking up shipments. After 10 days of escalating standoffs and threats, motorcycle policemen and employees of independent beer distributors formed unarmed convoys to escort delivery trucks. A week later, there were shotguns on board. Some plants, including the Carnegie facility of Duquesne Brewing Company, shut down indefinitely due to loading dock brawls.
“Our international union will not stand by and permit the CIO to take over the brewing industry,” said Lee Minton, president of the AFL-affiliated Glass Bottle Blowers Association, in the Oct. 20, 1946 edition of The Pittsburgh Press. “It is only reasonable to assume the CIO raiding tactics will ultimately bring havoc to our members.”
Tensions rapidly boiled over from there, as the AFL’s focus evolved from those who produced CIO beer to include those selling it. AFL-affiliated bartenders faced expulsion and fines for pouring a single glass of CIO beer. Local beer distributors soon began reporting threats and violence at their stores, and their accounts followed a similar pattern.
A telephone would ring and on the other end, a voice threatened to organize a picket blocking the store if it continued to sell “unfair” beer from CIO plants. Another call came a week later, this one claiming that any beer delivery trucks heading for Pittsburgh would never return. The next warned of an imminent bombing, phrased more subtly as “consequences.”
Altogether, Pittsburgh Press and police records show there were at least 23 bombings over a four month period. Two of these incidents targeted Louis Carletti, a beer distributor who was a vocal opponent of the conflict.
“It’s bad enough when they throw bricks through the windows of my place of business, but when they come to my home and terrorize my wife and three kids, that’s another thing,” Carletti said in Nov. 7’s edition of The Pittsburgh Press. “Today I’m going to get a permit to carry a gun, and it’ll be too bad for anyone who tries to molest us further.”
By Oct. 23, 1946, the AFL had expanded its embargo on CIO beer to cover the entire state of Pennsylvania. When the Teamsters threatened to take the boycott national two days later, the top headline of The Pittsburgh Press read, “BEER WAR THREATENS ALL U.S.”
As much as a total beer embargo troubled Pittsburghers, citywide panic wouldn’t set in until Oct. 29, 1946. That morning, the Teamsters announced plans to completely stop trucking rail shipments into the city, including food, medicine and building materials. Gov. Edward Martin intervened to avert the crisis, but the embargo threat was a core reason the U.S. House of Representatives opened a Beer War investigation in March 1947. It’s unclear what the inquiry’s findings were.
After half a year of feuding, the Pittsburgh Beer War fighting finally came to an end on April 2, 1947. The specific terms of the AFL-CIO truce were not made public, but whoever wrote The Pittsburgh Press subheadline “All Is Now Love” was probably too optimistic. Within a month, the groups had already begun threatening another round.
— Matt Moret