(Designed for presentation to general public and school audiences. Tell about yourself, your place of employment, your job, your local union.)


Workers and unions helped to make our nation great and to create our standard of living, with top wages and benefits for all workers. There were many struggles facing workers in reaching these goals. This presentation will discuss some of those struggles and identify the major gains of early workers and their unions.

Early History

  1. The Industrial Age began in the 1800s, with the U.S. moving from agricultural economy to industrial economy.
  2. Life was difficult for workers, with the average wage in 1890 under $2 a day, while industrialists made huge incomes.
  3. Workers were considered “property,” and “property” was given greater rights by the courts than people.

Early Unions

  1. While there were numerous efforts to form unions and some strikes, the National Molders Union in 1859 became the first permanent union.
  2. The first national labor federation — the Knights of Labor, lasting from 1860s into 1880s — sought broad social changes, while not favoring direct action, like strikes.
  3. The American Federation of Labor was formed in 1886, led by Samuel Gompers.

The Eight-Hour Day Struggle

  1. Unions across the nation set a goal of establishing the 8-hour day by May 1, 1886, otherwise there would be demonstrations and strikes.
  2. On May 4, 1886 at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, eight were killed from a bomb thrown by an unknown person at a rally of workers.
  3. Seven killed were on May 5, 1886 by state militia who fired into a crowd of 1,500 workers marching peacefully on behalf of the eight-hour day toward the Bay View Rolling Mills on Milwaukee’s lakefront.
  4. The Congress finally establishes the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, requiring overtime to be paid for all hours after 40 in a week.

Growth of Unions

  1. Employers widespread use of previously legal tactics, like injunctions against strikes and “yellow-dog” contracts, stifles growth of unions until the 1930s.
  2. A summer-long, city-wide strike of 1500 woodworkers in Oshkosh ends, but three leaders are charged with conspiracy — another favored employer tactic. Famed Attorney Clarence Darrow argues for the strikers, winning acquittal, helping to end use of conspiracy charges against workers.
  3. The Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914 banned use of injunctions.
  4. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1931 outlawed “yellow dog” contracts.
  5. The National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) becomes law on July 5, 1935, giving workers for the first the right to organize into unions without retaliation and requires employers to bargain with unions. This is labor’s “Magna Carta.”
  6. Workers flock to unions; by the 1950s, more than one in three are in unions.

Worker Protections

  1. Thanks to leadership of labor, the Socialist Party in Milwaukee and the La Follette Progressives elsewhere in Wisconsin, Wisconsin in 1911 becomes the first state to implement workers compensation protections.
  2. In 1932, Wisconsin again leads the way, and enacts unemployment compensation.

Public Employee Unions

  1. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was founded in 1936 in Madison.
  2. Wisconsin passes one of nation’s first collective bargaining laws for public employees in 1959.

Wisconsin Workers Produce

  1. In the 1920s, workers in the Wisconsin River Valley and major paper companies create labor peace through cooperative actions, benefiting area, and making Wisconsin the No. 1 paper manufacturing state in the union.
  2. Workers and unions create labor-management committee in many Wisconsin communities during 1980s and 1990s to help make Wisconsin a highly productive state.

Unions Today

  1. Unions work closely in the community, are responsible for passage of key civil rights laws and other citizen protections.
  2. Unions face greater employer challenges after President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
  3. Unions develop highly successful political efforts during last two decades of the 20th Century.
  4. Organizing and aggressive political action became the top two priorities of the AFL-CIO with the election of John Sweeney as President in 1995.