University of Wisconsin–Madison
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Our History

By and large, the activities of the School for Workers have reflected the state of the labor movement and industrial relations practices in its 90+ years of history.

  • A brief history

    A significant expansion in the size of the faculty and the scope of training activities occurred during the 1930s. In 1933-’34, a program to bring labor education classes to the hometowns of workers around the state was initiated and proved to be very popular. With the assistance of federal funding through the Works Progress Administration, the faculty reached an all-time high of 20 teachers and the community class program was greatly expanded. In 1937, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents authorized a state-financed, year-round workers’ education program in Wisconsin.

    For the School, these developments meant a high demand for practical training in collective bargaining; contract administration; union administration; leadership training for activists, stewards, and officers; pay systems (piecework, job evaluation); occupational safety and health (after the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970); and other technical areas. Another significant development involved arrangements with specific unions in which School for Workers faculty collaborated with union staff to custom design programs for the union, and the union handled recruitment of program participants from its local leadership. These basic patterns characterized School for Workers activities until the early 1980s. By and large, the activities of the School have reflected the state of the labor movement and industrial relations practices. Thus, the Second World War represented an important turning point for the School. Organized labor emerged from the war with new strength and a growing social legitimacy. Industrial relations practices became institutionalized within a broad regulatory framework established in the federal labor legislation of the 1930s and 1940s that promoted collective bargaining and peaceful resolution of day-to-day disputes in grievance and arbitration procedures.

    Current programming activities have evolved considerably to reflect the new realities of the post-1980 era. Wisconsin and Midwest labor in general were hard hit by back-to-back recessions that led to plant closings and restructuring of much of Midwest manufacturing. The early 1980s also saw a wave of very aggressive anti-union behavior by many employers in the hostile political climate of the time. Later in the decade, labor relations improved in some sectors as labor management cooperation and labor involvement in quality and productivity initiatives were stressed in many labor-management relationships. During this period the department sought to assist unions in responding to both the hostility of some employers and the cooperative initiatives of others. By the mid-1980s the department was engaged in a considerable volume of joint labor-management training activity and in training union leadership on work restructuring, new technology, cooperation, interest-based bargaining, new compensation systems, and a host of other issues in the new industrial relations climate.

    In recent years, we have also observed and documented the reduced strength of the labor movement as reflected in the long-term decline in union density. The labor movement has clearly acknowledged the need to organize both internally and externally, and has greatly raised the priority of these activities. Consequently, School for Workers also offers programs on enhancing membership engagement in our overall programming efforts.

  • More resources

    For more resources on Wisconsin labor history visit the Wisconsin Labor History Society web site.

Birth of School for Workers Video Parts 1 & 2

This video history traces the history not only of the School, but of organized labor from the 1920s through the mid-20th century. The 20-minute video is accompanied by both historic and original music by the noted labor and folk musician Anne Feeney and is narrated by David Newby, former President of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

Birth of School for Workers: Part 1 of 2

Birth of School for Workers: Part 2 of 2