Wisconsin Labor History Society
Report on Activities
(May 2014-April 2015)
By Steve Cupery, President
Wisconsin Labor History Society
Labor history tells a clear message: Working people have had to work together collectively in order to win a decent stand of living and safe and humane working conditions. Today, when nine out of ten workers are in workplaces without a union, the chances of achieving those goals are growing dimmer. We have seen with the election of Scott Walker, labor laws can be radically changed, taken away and rolled back if we are not prepared to make the public case as to why these are important and were and are necessary.
Therefore it is critical we pass on the important lessons of labor history. If we don’t take ownership for promoting labor’s message, who will? The Wisconsin Labor History Society is dedicated to preserving the history of unions and to educate workers, the general public, policymakers and, most critically, our children about the contributions that unions have made to make Wisconsin a great state.
As the Society collects, preserves and promotes our history, it demonstrates how the experiences of the past can guide us through today’s difficult times to a successful future. They also remind us of the importance of labor and working class history.
Annual Conference: The Society’s annual conference in 2014 was held at the Emil Mazey Hall Sheboygan in cooperation with UAW Local 833 entitled, “The Kohler Strikes: Three Decades of Struggle: What Can Labor Learn? What Works Today?” The conference was set up to encourage discussion about the future. All of our educational efforts are aimed at relating labor history to present struggles and a better future.
Bay View Tragedy: More than 300 attended the 128th Anniversary Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy held annually in May of each year, honoring the seven who were shot and killed by the state militia while in a rally for the eight-hour day. We contracted with the Milwaukee Public Theatre and the Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre to stage a dramatic re-enactment of the tragic incident and this has helped to increase the interest and attendance in this annual event. This event has become a popular tradition, attracting as many as a dozen political leaders. Most importantly, it reminds us that the fight for the eight-hour-day was a bloody one and continues to this present day.
Labor in the Schools: Since our founding in 1981, we have recognized the importance of educating our children who one day will be entering the workplace. They must be made aware that only through collective action can they have an impact on their chances to get a decent standard of living and safe and humane working conditions. Since our founding, we have sponsored the Essay Contest with generous cash prizes for high school students in the state; in recent years we have also sponsored cash prizes to encourage state middle and high school students to create exhibits with a labor history theme for National History Day competitions held throughout the state. Invariably, we are being told by the students that these prize incentives have educated them about labor unions and their importance. As a Neenah High School senior – who won an essay award – told the last conference, “Labor built this great country. What you do here matters.”
Labor History in the Schools Funding: The funds needed for the prizes in the above two projects were provided by special donations from more than 30 local unions or labor councils throughout the state. We thank them for their generosity in providing the money for these two efforts that are aimed at encouraging greater interest in labor history by Wisconsin’s school children.
Labor History in the Schools State Legislation: We are disappointed by the lack of progress by the State in implementing the labor history standards in our school curriculum as provided by Act 99 that was passed in 2009. The Dept. of Public Instruction is awaiting approval of the Common Core standards in Social Studies, which has been slow to be developed on a national scale. We hope to move this project forward in the coming year.
Frank P. Zeidler Academic Awards: Thanks to donations made to our Legacy Fund, the Society was able to provide again this year a $500 award for an undergraduate paper on labor history involving the political aftermath from the Bay View Tragedy. This award is made annually to both an undergraduate and graduate paper to encourage academic research in labor history in Wisconsin. Already one of the papers has been published into book form.
Communications and Media: Our online newsletter comes out monthly – more often when news requires it – and has become a popular and well-read tool to get our message out. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Meanwhile, we continue to publish our printed newsletter on a quarterly basis. We are able to keep our website up-to-date and it has become a valuable resource for our members and other interested parties for information about Wisconsin labor history. Website link: http://wisconsinlaborhistory.org.
Musical Events: We supported concerts by folksinger George Mann held in August in Madison and Milwaukee. Also, we were saddened by the death of Teamster Folksinger Larry Penn in October. Brother Penn sang at many of our events and was a
past recipient of our Solidarity Award. All of us have been inspired by the Solidarity Singers in Madison who have shown the power of song in building solidarity and we were proud to bring them to Milwaukee for the Bay View Tragedy event.
Membership is growing: We are grateful for the support that has been shown to the Society over the last year. Our membership rolls have grown and we have seen an increase in the number of labor organizations that have taken out memberships. We rely on membership dues and donations to fund the Society and that makes us doubly thankful for the great support from our friends throughout the state and elsewhere.
Other support: We wish to thank the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and its officers for the continued support; the Federation provides us with office space and other key logistical support that is so necessary for an organization that is basically voluntary.
Looking ahead: The WLHS Board of Directors has pledged to invest in building for the future. In the next two years, we will continue all of the activities we carried on during the two years, plus others. For example, we will be organizing our archives to assure that they will be accessible for historians and others, as well as to up-grade our website.
Labor’s heritage is a story of struggle, defeats and victories; it’s a story of how working people have gained better standards of living, safer and healthier working conditions and dignity for themselves and their families through numerous examples of courage and solidarity. Labor’s history gives us the inspiration to move forward and the Wisconsin Labor History Society is proud to play a role in preserving and promoting that history.