Wisconsin’s Labor Heritage at Stake!

If rights of workers can be successfully trampled upon by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican-controlled State Legislature, much of Wisconsin’s rich labor heritage will be lost.

The current proposals of Gov. Walker call for basically doing away with collective bargaining rights for public employees, rights they have had since 1959 when Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to guarantee such rights.  That law  protected municipal workers from dismissal or other discrimination for union activities  Subsequently, that law was strengthened in 1961 to require that municipal governments must bargain with unions that had had been certified as representing a majority of the workers.  In 1963, the law was further strengthened to grant either the union or the employer to call in a “fact-finder” to resolve bargaining disputes.

State employees won a limited right to bargain in 1965, and the rights were broadened over the next half dozen years.  In 1972, the state made “fair share” agreements legal, in which municipal employees working within certified bargaining units had to pay their share of bargaining unit costs, even if they were not members of the union.

Wisconsin was one of the first in the nation to do so.  (See “The Labor Movement in Wisconsin,” by Robert Ozanne, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1984, Pages 73-76)


Wisconsin led the way in other critical key worker protections, being the first in the nation to enact Workers Compensation (then called Workmen’s Compensation) in 1911; the first law was a compromise in that it was only a voluntary system, although the majority of employers and workers adopted it.  In 1931, the law became mandatory on all employers.  (Ozanne, P.124-127)

Unemployment insurance came later, but not without a lot of discussion from the years 1921 until 1934, when Wisconsin again became the first in the nation to put the law into effect.  A year later, the U.S. government passed enabling legislation as an incentive for other states to follow Wisconsin’s example.  (Ozanne, p.130-131)


MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Feb. 18, gave an excellent and entertaining summary of Wisconsin’s labor heritage.  View the 15-minute segment at: Rachel Maddow Comments