“Fighting Inequality” topic brings more than 80 to 32nd Wisconsin Labor History Annual Conference
Bill Fletcher, Jr., prominent union and civil rights leader, author and commentator, called for greater inclusiveness in unions as a way to strengthen the causes for working people. He gave the keynote address at the 32nd Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society in Waukesha on Saturday, April 20.
More than 80 persons packed the Machinist Lodge 1377 hall for the day-long stimulating conference, entitled “Fighting Inequality: A Wisconsin Tradition.” will be held at Machinist Local 1377 hall at 1726 S. West St., in Waukesha, beginning at 9 a.m. and continuing to 3:30 p.m.
A longtime labor, racial justice and international activist, Fletcher is a founder of the Black Radical Congress and is a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He was formerly the Vice President for International Trade Union Development Programs for the George Meany Center of the AFL-CIO, and previously served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.
Fletcher is the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us: And 20 Other Myths About Unions,” published in 2012 by Beacon Press.
His opening remarks were followed by three sessions:
- A presentation by Laura Dresser, associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, discussing: “Narrowing the Racial and Income Gap,” in which she traced how wide the gaps have become between income groups.
- A Symposium, “Inequality and Diversity in Labor’s Struggles,” moderated by Sheila Cochran of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, with testimonies by veterans of the labor and civil rights movements in Wisconsin.
- A Panel Discussion, “Redeeming Labor’s Power,” involving persons who have been leaders in solidarity movements.
An awards luncheon honored the five winners of the Society’s annual labor history essay contest for high school students. The Associations’ annual Lifetime Achievement award was given to Ken Greening, a retired member of Plumbers Local 75 in Milwaukee, for his longtime involvement and volunteer work in various causes supporting worker issues.
A full report on the conference will be published here soon and in the Summer Issue of the Society’s print newsletter.
Report on 2012 Labor History Conference . . .
Wisconsin’s progressive history
offers hope for workers
If there was any thought that history is irrelevant in today’s world, that was dispelled at the 31st Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society held April 21 in Milwaukee.
“History is powerful,” said Shel Stromquist, the conference keynote speaker, in setting the tone for the daylong event held concurrently with the conferences of the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) going on at a hotel some three blocks away. Stromquist, professor of history at the University of Iowa and incoming LAWCHA president, was among the founders of the Wisconsin society in 1981 when he was at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Never far from the thoughts of the more than 80 participants was the fact that Wisconsin workers and their unions are engaged in a historic struggle to preserve basic worker rights and constant references were made to the anti-union actions of Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature. There were references, too, of the gigantic rallies held in Madison and of the recall elections being conducted in the state to counter the Republican actions.
Speaker after speaker reiterated the belief that working people need to learn from the past in order to respond effectively to the assault against workers and their unions that is so present in today’s world.
Stromquist said that “collaborative action by workers is back,” noting that the Madison rallies of 2011 help to spur on campaigns later in other states. “It’s hard to imagine the Occupy movement without the uprising in Madison,” he said.
He called the current worker uprising the “new Wisconsin Idea,” comparing it to the original “Wisconsin Idea” formulated early in the 20th Century that developed many pioneering social and worker justice developments. The old Wisconsin Idea, he said, looked to the experts (most of them like John R. Commons from the University) while the “new Wisconsin Idea” looks to the power of the workers.
“Workers have seen the vicious attacks by capital on worker rights,” he said, and have responded with popular mobilizations as shown in Madison.
The conference theme was “It’s Not Over: Reclaiming Wisconsin’s Labor Heritage,” and Steve Cupery, WLHS President and a teachers’ union representative, proclaimed in opening the conference that “This is only the beginning. Something is in the wind and the fight will never be over.” (Read Cupery’s complete remarks here.)
Workers and unions are fighting on many fronts and Sheila Cochrane, secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council (AFL-CIO) reminded the audience that “within organized labor, we are all workers.” She said the enemies of labor are seeking to “divide us,” but that it was important to remember that all workers have common goals.
The conference was held in the downtown union hall of the Milwaukee Area Local of the American Postal Workers Union, and Paul McKenna, local president, said the local, formed on Dec. 6, 1906, was the 3rd postal worker unit in the nation. He added that despite being in an “open shop” environment, the local was 96% organized.
He noted how it took the “Great Postal Strike of 1970” to get Congress to provide collective bargaining rights to the workers. Now the union is seeking to convince Congress not to cut back on postal services that would cost tens of thousands of jobs. “We have to focus on Congress now,” he said.
It was obvious from the discussions that it will take mobilization on many levels to maintain and strengthen worker rights, including electoral politics, legislation and direct action.
Mike Konopacki, prominent cartoonist favored by many unions, said the ability to characterize the boss in a humorous or derisive manner can often work to mobilize workers, while Peter Rickman, an organizer with the “We Are Wisconsin” group, said the use of modern social networking strategies, while important, is only a complement to organizing. “New Media and old-fashioned methods have merged,” he said.
The story of the closing of the giant Janesville, Wisconsin, GM plant – at the time the oldest company facility in the nation – is being memorialized in a documentary being prepared for PBS. Brad Lichtenstein, the videographer, showed scenes from the forthcoming film, including one scene depicting Gov. Walker telling Janesville business people of his plan to “divide” the workers in order to weaken their unions.
The conference ended with five activists outlining strategies for restoring Wisconsin to its previous progressive nature.
(See full report in Printed Newsletter. Click here.)
Wisconsin ‘uprising’ compared to Bay View Tragedy
The solidarity of Wisconsin workers in the Uprising of 2011 has much in common with the spirit of the workers 126 years ago when they marched and gave their lives for the 8-hour-day.
Those similarities were highlighted in the annual observance of the Bay View Tragedy held on a rainy Sunday (May 6) to commemorate the May 5, 1886 incident when the State Militia fired upon working people marching for the eight-hour day, and killed seven. The Wisconsin Labor History Society, working with a group of Bay View residents and others, has held this annual memorial ceremony for 26 years.
Even heavy rains that fell up to an hour before the event and then picked up again shortly after it ended could not dampen the spirit of the more than 300 who attended. Because of continually threatening rain, the ceremony actually began inside the hall of Club Garibaldi, located opposite the Rolling Mills Historical marker site, but soon into the ceremonies the hall was filled to over-capacity; fire regulations forced the ceremony to resume outdoors.
A dramatic re-enactment was staged by the Milwaukee Public Theatre, featuring three prominent actors from the Milwaukee area with Flora Coker reading the narration, Dan Mooney reading fictional lines of the industrialists and Ron Scot Fry reading lines of labor leaders. As they read the lines, larger-than-life-sized puppets moved in front of the audience. They represented 1886 Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk (who ordered out the militia) and Paul Grottkau (one of the leaders of the eight-hour-day marchers).
This year’s event brought out Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Peter Bock, representing his wife and gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Falk, to make brief speeches.
Another twelve political leaders spoke briefly including: former State Senator Jon Lehman (D-Racine) seeking to unseat a Republican incumbent; newly elected County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitriievic; State Senators Chris Larson and Lena Taylor (cheered for being among the 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state to temporarily prevent Walker from passing the anti-union bargaining bill); Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) and Representatives Jon Richards, Sandy Pasch and Chris Sinicki, all Milwaukee Democrats; County Supervisor Jason Haas; Mahlon Mitchell, of Madison, a firefighter’s union leader seeking the Democratic nomination in the recall election for lieutenant governor; plus Dan Riemer, running in the 21st Assembly District, and Kelley Albrecht, running against Rep. Robin Vos of Racine.
Stephanie Bloomingdale, the first woman to be elected as secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, gave the major address of the day, comparing the struggles of 1886 with the current efforts to fight against the antiunion legislation being enacted in Madison and the ensuing recall election.
“The parallels between then and now are chilling,” she said. Both Governors Jeremiah Rusk (in 1886) and Scott Walker (in 2011) ordered out the state militia or National Guard with orders to move in on the workers. Both governors, she said, were doing the work of those who want a world that rewards millionaires at the expense” of workers, while trampling the rights of teachers, nurses, firefighters and others, challenging the rights of women, cutting back on education and ruining the environment.
Referring to the seven who were killed in 1886, Bloomingdale asked: “Did they die in vain?” Shouts of “no” resounded in answer.
“No, they did not,” she responded, “Their sacrifice lit a flame that illuminated the path for a generation of Americans . . . They blazed a trail not only for the eight-hour-day but to provide the power toward gaining the benefits we would all enjoy in the future.”
Bloomingdale concluded that workers and citizens today have a “debt of honor that we owe to those who died before us.”
Nearly 100 persons returned to Club Garibaldi to hear Milwaukee Historian John Gurda speak on the lasting significance of the 1886 incident. He called it “signal event, not just here, but nationally.” Even after deadly force had been used against the workers, the workers were not cowed, he said. On May 23rd, just three weeks after the tragedy, the Knights of Labor sponsored a march that attracted 5,000 workers along a five-mile route, declaring that “they were not going to be silenced,” he said.
Robert Schilling, the Knights leader, said after the shootings that the order to shoot the marchers was a “cowardly, calculated event” but that labor would not reply in violence. The incident represented a “call to action” for workers, Schilling said at the time: “The core victims are dead and buried. They shall be revenged, not by making blood flow, not through force, but the citizens have a weapon mightier than the bat and the bayonet – the ballot.”
Gurda said the workers and their unions formed the Peoples’ Party in the aftermath, and in the fall of 1886 won a majority of the offices in Milwaukee County, half of Milwaukee’s seats in the Legislature besides sending a millwright named Henry Smith to Congress.
“This was a clear validation of those victims who fell in 1886,” Gurda said. It didn’t last, since the Republicans and Democrats created a fusion coalition to regain control, obviously feeling they had more in common with each other than they did with labor at that time, Gurda said.
“The seed had been planted,” he said. “This was something that was not going to go away.”
Less than a decade later, workers and their allies, fueled by the pent-up emotions of the Bay View event, created the Socialist Party, by Victor Berger, who would later become a U. S. Congressman. He created what he called was the “Milwaukee Idea,” linking workers and Socialists together, beginning to run candidates for office in 1898. He said the Socialists were able to show they could govern honestly and efficiently, in contrast to a decade of “grafters” that had featured Milwaukee government. In 1910, Emil Seidel was elected mayor as a Socialist and the party swept the election.
This began a period of about 50 years during which Milwaukee elected mainly Socialist mayors, all of whom supported labor, Gurda said. They transformed Milwaukee from one of the most corrupt cities to perhaps the most efficiently run city in the nation, he said.
“The lessons of 1886 are the same as today,” he said. “Our ancestors realized that nothing changes unless we work together to resist the intolerable.”
Responding to Gurda’s remarks, retired History Professor Michael Gordon agreed that the Tragedy of 1886 found workers getting into politics in order to win their rights. Pretty quickly, he said, workers understood that in order to be successful they had to form coalitions, even with those who are not workers or union members. He said that workers joined with the farmers and middle-class families; in the early 20th Century, workers reached out and joined with the Progressive movement and in the 1930s to form the so-called New Deal Coalition of the Democratic Party, African-Americans, women and even white Southern landowners.
He cited a number of incidents in which workers joining in solidarity to gain basic rights were met with violence like that in 1886, such as the 1912 Lawrence textile strikes and numerous other acts of violence from 1877 into the early 1900s.
Speaking of the workers who were engaged in all of these events, Gordon said, “These are the people to whom I owe a debt and always will.”
Also responding was WLHS President Steve Cupery who said that in recent years many workers “forget the lessons of history and they didn’t turn out to the polls,” referring obviously to the 2010 elections when the Republican Party took over the State Legislature and Gov. Walker was elected. As a result, he said that while change is usually slow, it became instantaneous when it came to “taking away people’s rights” and “taking us backward.”
Cupery, who is a representative for the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), referred to the Oconomowoc School District, which has established new policies that layoff teachers, increase class sizes and take preparatory time from teachers. “We always have to remain vigilant, we need to participate at the ballot box, we need to organize our families, friends and neighbors and reach out to them, talk to them about the values we believe in and get them to vote,” he concluded.
The program was planned by a committee convened by the Wisconsin Labor History Society. (See full report and pictures in newsletter. Click here.)