WLHS Primer on Wisconsin Labor History

Outline | Sample Presentation

The following offers background information and a general format for those planning to make speeches or other presentations to union audiences, school groups and others.

While the presentation may be presented as shown, it is advisable for presenters to develop their own presentation, using this merely for background information and ideas in outlining the speech.

A further suggestion is to include information from your own community or union in appropriate places in the presentation.

An outline precedes the presentation.

Click here to view and download Presentation on Wisconsin Labor History (Power Point file).

Further information and assistance may be sought at

OutlinePresentation on Wisconsin’s Labor History

(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.

Sample Presentation on Wisconsin’s Labor History

Designed for presentation to general public groups and school audiences



Today, the United States is the richest country on earth. By most standards, U.S. earnings permit the vast majority of us to enjoy the highest standards of living. Most families have cars, sometimes two or three, televisions, refrigerators and their children have access to boom boxes, CDs, computers and cell phones.

How did it happen that Wisconsin workers in May 2010 earned an average of $19.70 an hour, according to BLS statistics?

The answers involve many factors, including:

1. The great natural resources of the nation, including our rich farm land and deposits of coal and oil and iron ore.

2. The investments of many capitalists, permitted under the free enterprise system.

3. Workers who toiled long hours to produce the wealth.

4. Finally, the collective action of workers — usually through their unions — to force employers to pay fair wages.

While the first three factors explain much of our nation’s economic success, it’s the fourth factor that tells us how workers were able get a fairer share of the nation’s wealth.

Why do you think it was necessary for workers to form unions? Do you think employers would have provided decent wages and working conditions without some pressure?


Let’s go back to the beginning of the growth of modern industry — the so-called industrial age — usually believed to be the latter part of the 1800s, dating from the end of the Civil War. Great industries grew by leaps and bounds: the miles of railroad track increased by 900% in the period from 1869 to 1900 and the number of factory workers grew by 300% from 1880 to 1910. And factories grew larger.

The U.S. became less and less based on farms and more and more based on work in the cities.

Here’s what workers at the end of the 19th Century faced:

1. Great disparity in wealth. The typical worker earned less than $2 a day in 1890, while industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Mellon and J. P. Morgan accumulated unheard of wealth.

2. Constant ups and downs in the economy, in which workers got laid off or faced terrible pay cuts when business went bad. And, there were no welfare programs or unemployment compensation to protect them.

3. Terribly long hours of work, ranging from 50 hours a week for skilled workers to as many as 84 hours a week (that’s 12 hours a day for seven days) in the blast furnaces of the steel industry.

4. Life was difficult for working people; disease was rampant and working conditions if not terribly uncomfortable were downright dangerous. (In 1911, in the Triangle Shirt Waist Co. fire in New York, 146 workers, mainly women, died in a fire when exit doors had been locked to prevent thefts.)

Early on, workers learned they could not rely upon employers to pay them fairly. The prominent philosophy among the politicians and newspaper editors of the day was that workers were “property,” that is, they were resources for an employer to use to produce a profit.


As early as 1805, Cordwainers, or shoemakers, formed a union in New York, but with no laws to protect them, such unions were short-lived. In 1806, for instance, cordwainers in Philadelphia were forced to disband after being charged with conspiracy for organizing in an attempt to get higher wages, thus causing “injury” to their employer.

For much of the next 50 years, any efforts at organizing largely faced such adverse decisions in the courts, making it impossible for unions to be developed, or to last very long. Sometimes, a strike action or union collective action brought victories, but once it was over, the union usually went out of business, and the employers soon were in control again. Thus, workers largely were at the mercy of their employers.

Workers in Wisconsin were to play an important role in the growth of unions and in the eventual improvement of working conditions and wages.

In 1859, the first national union that was to survive was formed among foundry workers. The National Molders Union was founded, and Molders locals were formed in Milwaukee as early as 1863. In 1867, the Knights of St. Crispin was founded in Milwaukee among shoe industry workers and soon was to become the largest national union of its day with some 70,000 members. The union died after the Panic of 1873 devastated the economy. St. Crispin, by the way, was a third century martyr who was the patron saint of shoemakers.


Meanwhile, the hours of work continued to burden workers. As early as 1836, social reformers called for the shortening of the work day to ten or even eight hours. There were eight-hour day movements, and by 1867, the U.S. Congress voted for an eight-hour day to apply to mechanics and laborers employed by the U.S. government. For most workers, however, the 50 to 60 hour work week was standard.

Meanwhile, the Knights of Labor, the first truly national union federation was founded, and it grew in power from the mid 1860s into the 1880s. Headed by Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly, the Knights included small business people as well as workers and supported legislative and social action to improve working conditions. It opposed the use of the strike, and that soon meant there was room for a rival federation of unions. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, was formed, and in 1886 it became the American Federation of Labor, which survives today as the AFL-CIO. The new Federation passed a resolution that declared that by May 1, 1886 the 8-hour day should be the “standard” workday. And, it suggested that its affiliated local councils should “consider” declaring a general strike on that day to enforce the 8-hour day goal.

In Milwaukee, the fervor for the 8-hour day resulted in the City’s Common Council declaring the 8-hour day law in March of 1886 for municipal employees.

On May 1, 1886, 8-hour day marches and strikes began all over the nation, but were strongest in industrial cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee.

Tragedy struck, however, after a confrontation at the vast McCormick Harvester plant in Chicago on May 3 in which police fired into a crowd of strikers killing four.

The next night a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest the killings. But as it was ending. a bomb was thrown by an unknown person killing 8 persons, including several police. The following day, in Milwaukee, some 1,500 workers, mainly from the city’s Polish South Side, marched on the Bay View Rolling Mills plant at the Lakefront, urging support for the 8-hour day. State militia, under the orders of Gov. Jeremiah Rusk, perhaps fearing similar violence to that at Haymarket, fired from 200 yards away into the peaceful marchers, killing at least seven.

The violence stifled the 8-hour day movement nationally, but did help to build determination among workers to continue to organize for better working conditions and to seek legislative change. Worker movements thrived in many communities, and in Milwaukee, a workers party actually gained control of the City Council and elected a Congressman in the November 1886 elections.

Continued union pressure for shorter hours eventually brought laws creating the 8-hour day for railroad workers in 1916 and during the New Deal Years the 1938 Federal Fair Labor Standards Act established the rule for time and one-half pay after 40 hours of work and a minimum wage of 25c an hour.

Thus, it is important to note that the 8-hour day was won only after there was blood shed and much organizing.


The American Federation of Labor was founded in 1886, and union membership grew slowly, mainly among skilled trades workers who were able to bargain shorter hours and better conditions. Among industrial laborers, however, there was little unionizing going on, largely because the skilled unions weren’t interested in the unskilled workers and because many were immigrants, unschooled in U.S. traditions and the English language. Two exceptions were among miners who organized in the eastern coal mines and in the western gold, silver and lead mines, and textile workers, mainly in the large cities.

Unions were further stifled in growth by laws and courts that favored employers, due to the continuing belief that workers were “property.”

For instance, employers could force workers to sign “yellow-dog” contracts in which workers would promise not to join a union, facing discharge if they did. That practice didn’t end until the passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1931.

Injunctions were regularly used against unions if they went on strike: the argument being that workers organizing into a group were “restraining trade” of the employer. That ended with the passage of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act in 1914, which didn’t truly become effective until 1922 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared a mineworkers strike was not “in restraint of trade” in the Coronado mine case.

Unions lost the ability to use secondary boycotts freely against unfair employers in court rulings in the 1903 Bucks Stove and the 1916 Danbury Hatters Cases.


One of the ongoing issues facing workers’ efforts to act collectively were charges of “conspiracy.” Throughout the 19th Century, conspiracy charges were issued to weaken union efforts.

Again, Wisconsin unionists were at the forefront of this issue. In 1898, woodworkers in Oshkosh staged a general strike, largely because they had been denied “catch-up” pay raises they had been promised after suffering major paycuts during the 1893 Depression. Some 1,500 went on strike during the summer; one young striker was killed and violence erupted at several times.

After the strike ended, the lumber companies persuaded authorities to level conspiracy charges against Thomas Kidd, of Chicago, from the Woodworkers Union, and two other local unionists, for their role in the strike. The three had committed no overt crime; their only charge covered their activity in leading the strike. Famed Defense Attorney Clarence Darrow came to town to defend the three and got the conspiracy charges thrown out, helping to bring an end to that favored employer tactic.

This Wisconsin incident may have helped to protect the right of workers to meet and decide on strategies, such as strikes. It also brought national attention to Clarence Darrow as one of the major defenders of the rights of workers and the down-trodden of our nation.


Thanks to the growing strength of Wisconsin unions, the Socialist Party in Milwaukee and the Progressives of “Fighting Bob” La Follette led the way providing numerous social reforms, including the implementation in 1911 of the nation’s first Workers Compensation law. (While the State of Washington’s legislature passed the law a few weeks earlier, it was not implemented until after the Wisconsin law.) This was truly revolutionary, since it required employers to provide medical attention, compensation for loss of life and limb and payment for lost time due to injuries on the job. Previously, worker’s only choices were to go to court. Not only could few workers afford attorneys for such actions, they normally had to prove that they were not responsible for the accident that caused injury. Under workers compensation, a worker only has to prove that the injury occurred on the job (it’s in essence a “no-fault” system).

In 1932, the state became one of the first to provide unemployment compensation, thus providing workers six months of partial pay for layoffs that occurred through no fault of their own.


A worker alone has little chance to make changes in the workplace. As a group, however, workers do have power; therefore, the principle of unions is best shown in “collective bargaining.”

Our history is a constant struggle between groups of workers seeking to form unions and bargain collectively and employers who seek to stifle such efforts to unionize. Until the 1930s, workers had few legal rights to unionize; employers charged such collective activity amounted to “illegal conspiracies,” and the courts largely agreed, usually favoring the property rights of employers. And, when workers were able to exhibit virtual 100% solidarity — such as in the 1877 railroad strikes, the 1892 Homestead Steel strike in Pittsburgh, the 1894 Railway Union fights against Pullman and the 1912 Massachusetts textile strikes — they were usually met with legal action and the guns and bayonets of the National Guard, U.S. Army and state law enforcement agencies. The result usually was the eventual defeat of the strike effort and the workers’ goals of better pay and benefits and decent treatment on the job.

History has shown that workers will rise up and battle improbable odds to correct wrongs, even if it means immediate defeat. Such sacrifices by workers in the past helped to bring about changes that have made for better workplaces and social and economic justice for all workers today.

Except in the skilled trades areas, most unions in the 19th Century died shortly after the event that gave birth to them. Thus, strikes often ended with the leaders facing criminal charges for doing nothing more than organizing collective actions.

These early labor disputes eventually brought about legislation that recognized the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. At first legislation took the form of mediation boards, such as were created in 1916 during World War I to resolve labor disputes. And in 1926, the first national law recognizing workers’ rights to join unions without facing employer discrimination was passed to cover railroad workers.

The stock market crash in October, 1929, led to the nation’s longest and worst depression, eventually causing one in three workers to become unemployed. Partly due to fear of worker uprisings and a growing social consciousness, the nation finally realized the need for providing unions with legal support. In 1931, Congress passed the Davis-Bacon Act which provided for the payment of “prevailing wages” to workers on jobs paid for by Federal funds. That law stands today for building trades worker protections, and is operable on jobs like Miller Park and highway construction. In 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act banned the use of Federal injunctions in labor disputes, thus ending its use as a favorite tool of employers to stifle strikes.

With his New Deal reforms, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the need for labor peace during the tight times of the Depression. In both the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933 and later in the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) of 1935, Congress recognized two key principles:

First, that workers have the right to organize and they cannot be fired, disciplined or otherwise discriminated against in exercising that right; and

Secondly, that once workers have organized into a union, the employer is obligated by Federal law to bargain in good faith with that union.

These rights continue to the present day and the Wagner Act has often been called the Magna Carta for working people. In 1937, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Act was passed to give similar protections to workers in the state who might be exempt from the Federal laws.

With the passage of these protections, it’s no mystery as to why workers joined unions in droves during the 1930s. For the first time in history, ordinary, unskilled workers were given the right to have a union; these were the people who helped make the nation great, the auto workers and steel workers, the machinists and the bakers; yes, even professional employees like actors, newspaper reporters and teachers.

With union organization came grievance rights, fairer treatment on the job, better benefits such as company-paid health insurance, shorter hours, vacations, extra holidays, etc. By 1954, some 36% of the nation’s workers were in unions. . . and the union standard for wages and benefits became the national standard for most workers.

These gains didn’t come easily. Wisconsin employers fought back and resisted unionization. Allis-Chalmers, one of the state’s major employers, forced its UAW local into two long strikes — in 1940-41 and in 1946-47 — to break the union’s efforts. J.I. Case in Racine forced workers into a 14-month strike just after World War II and the Kohler Co. of Kohler fought off unionization for thirty years and through two multi-year strikes, until finally agreeing to build peaceful relations in 1962. Throughout these and other strikes, Wisconsin workers showed remarkable solidarity.


Wisconsin also led the nation in giving public employees the right of collective bargaining. The nation’s largest public employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was founded in Madison in 1936; throughout the state, public employees organized, even though they had no legal protections. Nonetheless, public workers, like those in Milwaukee regularly showed solidarity in threatening to strike to win fair treatment. Finally in 1959, the State passed the nation’s first comprehensive public employee bargaining law, Section 111.70, which provided the right of collective bargaining to public employees, and also required municipalities, school districts the university system and other public entities to bargain with the unionized workers.




In most cases, however, Wisconsin unions and employers cooperated to create one of the most productive industrial states of the union. In the Wisconsin River Valley, for instance, paperworkers union members and the major paper-making corporations have worked together to help make the state the No. 1 paper-producing state in the nation. This was accomplished with the lead of Consolidated Paper’s George Mead, who in the 1920s recognized the value of well-trained, a well-paid work force, and helped to bring labor-management cooperation to the industry.

During World War II, industries in Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Madison, Eau Claire and elsewhere set production records. Labor-management committee have been established in communities throughout the state to help build productive industries whose union workers are well-compensated.


Unions hit their highest membership levels during the 1950s, and continued to set the standards of wages and benefits for most workers until the 1980s. Indeed, in Milwaukee there was only one large manufacturing firm which was not unionized during this period. In 1974, some 35,000 union members were on strike at one time, virtually all of them winning major concessions from companies.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, union membership began a decline. His firing of members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981 set the tone for many employers to stiffen their resistance to unions. Unfriendly employers not only resisted union demands, but used all sorts of tactics to stifle union organizing. In addition, the shift of industrial work to southern, largely non-union states, and overseas, reduced the industrial work force in those strongly unionized industries. Thus, as a percentage of the workforce, the level of unionization has fallen steadily, so that by the year 2000 just under 14% of eligible U.S. workers were unionized.

The decline of union membership was largely blamed on two laws that were passed:

First, the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 was passed in response to the unpopularity of numerous strikes that occurred after World War II and included several restrictions that hindered labor’s growth: the right of states to pass laws that prohibited “union shop” clauses (erroneously called “right-to-work” laws) and to prohibit so-called secondary boycotts.

Secondly, the Landrum-Griffin Bill was passed in 1957 to provide all sorts of restrictions on union locals, forcing unions to become more closely regulated than businesses.

UNIONS AND THE COMMUNITY Partly as a result of the anti-union legislation, but also reflecting the historic commitment of labor to build a better community, U.S. labor unions in the last 40 years of the 20th Century became deeply involved in social causes and political activity. Its legislative agenda goes far beyond the issues directly tied to the success of individual unions.

For instance, labor union support was critical to the passage of:

1. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin;

2. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, that helped to bring full citizenship to African-Americans in the South;

3. The Age Discrimination Act of 1968;

4. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970;

5. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

Union members continue to provide the base of leadership for many of the progressive forces in our communities. The challenges are many, but unions today are more than ever showing greater solidarity and interest in making a better life for all citizens.

There is great pride in being a union member, today, more than ever.

Prepared by:

Wisconsin Labor History Society

For information, contact: Kenneth A. Germanson, Emeritus President WLHS