WLHS spreads labor’s history to public, Wisconsin students

The Wisconsin Labor History Society is holding its 39th Annual Meeting as a virtual get-together.  Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, many of us are able to see each other.  As marvelous as this is, I believe we all miss the face-to-face contacts that we enjoyed in our first 38 annual meetings. 

The cancellation of our 39th Annual Conference was a disappointment to all of us, but it was obviously necessary given the devastation of the Covid-19 epidemic.  It was to be an exciting and meaningful conference, featuring Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA, as our keynoter.  The conference also included a series of panelists to explore the conference theme, “Progressives, Populists and Socialists: How the Past Informs the Future.”  The attendance for this conference promised to pack the meeting hall; we have been averaging 150 participants in recent years.

During the 12 months since our last conference in 2019, we have been active in many areas, including:

Archives.  Throughout the years we have acquired numerous items, including pictures, various histories of local unions or labor councils, button and badge collections, minutes, etc.  All help to tell labor’s story.  This past year, we hired Jamakaya, the author of our popular booklet, “Like Our Sisters Before Us,” to catalogue these various items.  Our Archives Committee will be working on placing these items in appropriate collections during the coming year.

Mapping Project.  In 2018, we acquired the rights to a project developed by the South Central Federation of Labor to create an interactive online map of prominent locations in Wisconsin labor history.  We are in the process of up-dating the map and making it more accessible for interested persons.

Website.  We have retained a consultant to make our website more attractive and accessible and we expect to unveil the newly-designed site shortly.  We expect the changes will assist in building even greater use of the site.  In the meantime, check our site at www.wisconsinlaborhistory.org.

2019 Annual Conference.  Nearly 150 persons attended our 38th Annual Conference held April 13th at Madison’s Labor Temple on the topic of “How Labor Can Win Again,” that discussed direct action tactics of the past, present and future.  Our keynoter was Dan Kaufman, author of the widely praised “The Fall of Wisconsin.”  David Newby, president emeritus of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO won 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Bay View Tragedy.  Perhaps Wisconsin’s most notable labor history event occurred on May 5, 1886 when 1500 workers, marching in an eight-hour-day rally, were fired upon by the state militia and seven were killed.  This significant event in history was largely forgotten until 1986 when the Society, with support from various Bay View area citizens, began scheduling a commemorative event that has grown in popularity and has been attended by about 300 in recent years.  This year, due to the Covid-19 crisis, we commemorated this historic event two ways.  First, we held a virtual event with a 25-minute video featuring five historians and unionists discussing the relevance of the Tragedy.  Then, we held a brief wreath-laying ceremony, purposely limited to ten persons, all maintaining social distancing.  We believe the Society’s sponsorship of this event has helped to build public awareness of the sacrifice of workers who practiced solidarity to achieve positive improvements in working life.

Labor History in the Schools.  The Society believes one of its most critical roles is educating our children on the great role unions had in building our state.  We recognize that one day these children will be entering the workplace.  They must be made aware that workers need collective action to gain decent standards of living and safe and humane working conditions.  We sponsor:

  • Labor History Essay Contest with generous cash prizes for high school students in the state.  We urge all of our members to promote this contest among high school children of their acquaintance.  The winning essays are reproduced in our quarterly newsletter. 
  • National History Day contests with prizes to encourage state middle and high school students to create exhibits with a labor history theme. This is extremely popular among Wisconsin’s school children and offers an excellent way in which to interest students in labor history.  After a year’s absence from sponsoring prizes, the Society returned this year and was pleased with the number of students who had high quality projects featuring labor history.

The funds needed for the prizes in the above two projects were provided to our Labor History in the Schools Fund by generous donations from nearly 40 local unions or labor councils throughout the state. 

Frank P. Zeidler Academic Awards:  Thanks to donations made to our Legacy Fund, the Society offers each year a $1,000 award for a graduate academic paper on Wisconsin labor history and a $500 award for papers by undergraduate students. We awarded a $1,000 prize in 2020 to Eleni Schirmer for her original research paper, “ ‘Power Is Only What You Chose To Do With It’: The Social Movements the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association Spurned, 1970-1974.”

Communications and Media:  Our online newsletter comes out monthly – more often when news requires it – and its popularity is shown in that 40% of recipients record “open.”   If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, send an email to info@wisconsinlaborhistory.org.  We also publish our printed newsletter on a quarterly basis.

Network of Labor History Organizations:  Our Society is one of the more active labor history groups in the nations and we have joined with leaders from the Illinois Labor History Society and the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association to seek to create a network of labor history groups in the US and Canada.  The purpose is to share best practices and encourage the development of similar such groups in other areas.  Two online meetings have been held this year and more are planned.

Membership is growing:  We are gratified for the loyalty of our members (individual and organizational), as indicated by the high renewal rate each year. For our needed operational income, we rely on membership dues and donations and that makes us doubly thankful for the great support from our friends throughout the state and elsewhere.

Other support:  We thank President Stephanie Bloomingdale and Sec-Treas. Dennis Delie of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and staff for their 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.  We have strengthened our committee structure and look to involve more members in our activities.  Anyone interested in volunteering for a committee or other activities may contact us at info@wisconsinlaborhistory.org.  We encourage your involvement.