Milestones In Wisconsin Labor History

By Ken Germanson

Let’s not forget the accomplishments of Wisconsin’s workers and their unions in helping to make Wisconsin a great state in which to live, a state that is known for providing a high quality of life for her citizens and for leading in progressive innovations. By most standards, our citizens are better educated, have a greater commitment to clean water, skies and land, choose honest and dedicated government servants and maintain strong workplace protections. Even with all those quality of life benefits, our state has become a national leader in industry and agriculture.

This would not have been possible without the political and legislative leadership of labor and without the sacrifices of many workers who struggled to organize to develop a solidarity strong enough to create change. Wisconsin was in the vanguard of early union organizing. As early as 1865, Local 125 was formed in Milwaukee as part of the Molders Union, the nation’s first modern trade union. Shoemakers in Milwaukee founded the Knights of St. Crispin in 1867, which quickly grew to 50,000 members, becoming the biggest union in the nation until it died during the panic of 1873. During the nationwide campaign for the eight-hour day in 1886, Milwaukee workers mounted perhaps the most all-encompassing effort of any community. Workers shut down most industrial plants during the first five days of May, and several thousand were marching toward the Bay View Rolling Mills (the city’s largest employer) when the State militia fired in to the crowd, killing seven. Coming one day after the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, the two events may have had the cumulative effect of stifling the eight-hour movement for several decades, but it did show, more importantly, how workers acting in solidarity could have an effect upon a community.

Out of that tragic event came the development of a viable Socialist movement in Milwaukee and the resulting elections of community leaders that would leave a positive mark on the state’s largest city. Meanwhile, “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s Progressive Party came into power in the state.

A 14-week citywide strike in Oshkosh in 1898 -100 years ago-by more than 2000 workers in seven woodworking mills drew national attention when three unionists were arrested for “conspiracy”. This was a critical charge. If the arrests had been upheld, it would have opened the way for employers to undercut any effort at unionization as constituting a “conspiracy” against an employer’s property rights. Famed attorney Clarence Darrow represented the unionists and won their acquittal after a two-day summation, that is one of the greatest statements against worker slavery.

Workers and unions in Wisconsin early on saw the need for joining in councils and federations both within communities and statewide. The several Knights of Labor chapters were supplanted by councils of the American Federation of Labor, with Milwaukee’s Federated Trades Council forming in 1887. The Wisconsin State Federation of Labor was formed with a convention in 1893 in Milwaukee with goals calling for abolition of child labor, workplace safety and health protections, the eight-hour day, workers compensation, an end of “company stores” and requirement to pay wages in cash, not company script.

With the support of persons like University of Wisconsin Economist John R. Commons and Progressive Gov. Robert M. La Follette, it was no wonder that in 1911 the State passed the first workers compensation law and in 1932 passed unemployment compensation. In 1937, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Act was passed, adding critical state support to the workers’ right to organize.

During the years of the Great Depression (1929-1941), Wisconsin workers joined unions in droves, making Wisconsin one of the most unionized of states on a percentage basis; it’s a record that continues today.

Wisconsin employers, however, fought back and resisted unionization. Allis-Chalmers used red-baiting tactics to resist the United Auto Workers during an 11-month strike in 1947: J.I. Case in Racine forced the UAW into an 11-month strike just after World War II to halt union security demands and the Kohler Co. fought off unionization through two multi-year strikes, the second one lasting from 1954 to 1964. Throughout these and other long strikes, Wisconsin workers showed remarkable solidarity, helping to build a union tradition in the state to overcome stiff employer resistance.

It is perhaps that tradition that helped Wisconsin to lead the way in public employee unionism. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers was founded in 1936 in Madison, eventually becoming one of the largest unions in the nation.  Public workers gained true union rights in the late 1950s, with some public employee unions recognizing that they had to use private industry tactics, such as the strike, to win justice. In Milwaukee, AFSCME District Council 48 almost annually threatened garbage strikes at budget time, prompting city officials there and elsewhere to seek state law supporting public sector collective bargaining and banning strikes. The result was the creation in 1959 of Section 111.70 of the State Statutes, which finally was given teeth in 1963. The law set up union elections procedures, a “prohibited practice”, and fact-finding, all of which gave public employees greater rights and helped to spur unionism.

The Wisconsin law was a model for the nations; it was a success in that few crippling strikes occurred, while employees gained better wages and working conditions. Teachers’ unions struggled for a while to find their place under the new law, needing in some cases to cast off their former leadership by principals and superintendents to become “unions” in fact, if not in name.

The 1974 Hortonville Teachers’ strike, however, demonstrated the chancy results of public employee strikes, particularly in smaller communities. In 1977, following strikes by Madison firefighters and Milwaukee police, the legislature called for binding arbitration of public employee strikes, virtually ending such job actions in the public sector.

Meanwhile in the private sector, unions continued to thrive into the 1970s, and many unions reached their peak memberships by the end of the decade.  The 1980s brought a different story. Reagan’s unchallenged firing of PATCO members, the growing globalization of the workforce and the uncompromising attitudes of employers against unions worked to the disadvantage of workers. The state’s onetime industrial might was decimated by plan shutdowns and downsizing as jobs went to so-called right-to-work states or overseas. Because of fear of strikebreaking, fewer unions favored such job actions and those that did often faced long, sometimes failed efforts.

A long Briggs & Stratton strike in Milwaukee in 1983 gave management key footholds in weakening that union, while a Patrick Cudahy strike in the late 1980s involved the added concerns of the use of minority workers as strikebreakers.

Beginning in the 1970s, Wisconsin’s once thriving manufacturing sector began to move out of the state, many to southern states where unions were weak and others overseas.  Thousands upon thousands of union jobs were gone as industries moved, causing dramatic drops in union membership.  Meanwhile, employment in public employee unions continued strong, only to be decimated after the 2011 enactment of Act 10 that removed collective bargaining rights from state, county, municipal and school district workers.

Republicans after 2011 controlled the state government, eventually passing a “right-to-work (for less)” law in 2015, causing further erosion of union ranks in the private sector.  The attacks on unions were motivated by the Republicans to weaken the political power of unions that had been critical for Democratic political success in the state.

Even with depleted membership, Wisconsin unionists continued to organize, to seek coalitions, to develop new more militant tactics and continued to be a force for progressive change in Wisconsin.  Its efforts were an important factor in 2018 elections, when Democrats won all of the Statewide offices, even the State Legislature remained in Republican control due to the severe gerrymandering of districts.

Labor, however, has been up to the challenge. Though now representing a far lower percentage of the workforce, the union movement during the 21st Century has been looking to greater involvement in coalitions, particularly those representing minority groups or the environmental movement. It has become more involved than ever in political and legislative activity, providing a major voice in protecting consumers and ordinary citizens in the state. The unions are working more cooperatively, seeking to win reforms that will make Wisconsin again a beacon of progressivism.

Among union members themselves, there appears to be greater solidarity and dedication. Labor’s history tells us that the struggle is one that calls for constant vigilance and action, but always seeking to move forward to build a better life for the workers of future generations.  (Revised, November 2018)

Dates To Remember
In Wisconsin Workers History

1848 – First successful strike in Milwaukee -Ship Carpenters
1867 – Knights of St. Crispin — union of shoemakers — founded in Milwaukee – became nation’s largest union, became defunct in Panic of 1873
1886 – Bay View Tragedy: 7 workers killed by State Militia while on peaceful march for establishing the 8-hour day (State’s worst labor violence)
1893 – State Federation of Labor founded – predecessor of Wisconsin State AFL-CIO
1897 – Formation of Socialist Party in Milwaukee, forming basis for much progressive action in City and State of Wisconsin
1898 – City-wide strike of Woodworkers in Oshkosh – conspiracy charges beaten back after dramatic trial led by famed Defense Atty. Clarence Darrow
1900 – 1905 – Strikes by paper workers to have Saturday night “off” first won, then lost in mills as employers bust union efforts

1911 – First Workers Compensation Law in U.S. established in Wisconsin
1932 – First Unemployment Compensation Law in U.S. passed in Wisconsin
1935 – American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union founded in Madison; now one of largest unions in the nation
1936 -1939 – Workers organize into unions after passage of Wagner Act; hundreds of thousands join in factories, workplaces from Kenosha to Superior, making Wisconsin one of most heavily unionized states, bringing top wages and benefits to all workers in state
1939-1947 – Strikes at Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co. in West Allis become national symbols of struggle for shop floor rights and debate over role of communism in unions
1958 – State AFL-CIO created through merger of State Federation of Labor and Wisconsin CIO
1959 – Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act passed in Wisconsin — one of first in nation
1954 – 1965 – Long strike by UAW at Kohler Co. ends with union and company establishing peace
1963 – 1970 – Migrant farmworkers organize in state, aided by widespread support of unions, AFL-CIO

2011 – Wisconsin unionists and supporters rally in historic gigantic demonstrations around State Capitol to protest passage of Act 10 that removed most collective bargaining rights for public employees