Wisconsin Labor History: An Epic Story

The labor movement has deep roots in Wisconsin’s history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, as the state emerged as an industrial powerhouse, how workers and organized labor in Wisconsin have fared, and what they have done, has been an important part of our national as well regional and state history.  The state’s early diversified economy, based on agriculture, and a burgeoning lumber, wood and paper industry, and both heavy and light manufacturing concentrated in the eastern third of the state, but also spread  throughout, and food processing closely tied to agriculture, seemed to promise a bright future. However working conditions in both agriculture and industry could be brutal and dangerous at this time, with work uncertain, hours long and wages meager. When the fledgling Federation of Trades and Labor Unions reorganized as the American Federation of Labor (AFL), it passed a resolution that “…henceforth eight hours will constitute a full day’s work,” demanding the full pay then earned in ten, twelve or more hours, Many workers viewed their lives as little more than  “wage slavery,” an allusion to the Southern plantation chattel slavery that had been abolished by the Civil War.  The AFL’s call met with an enthusiastic response. In early May, 1886 eight hour day strikes caught fire across the country. In the Milwaukee area the largely immigrant industrial workforce rallied to the cause, as did many socialists and radicals. Government, generally hostile to worker militancy on all levels, responded by calling out the State Militia. The stage was set for a confrontation between Militia and striking workers in front of the rolling mills of Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. Troops were ordered to open fire on the crowd, resulting in five reported dead and eight wounded, including innocent bystanders. These events have perhaps been overshadowed by the nearly simultaneous events related to Chicago’s Haymarket Riot; in both cases, and many others, the police and other forces succeeded  in suppressing the strikes. (Readers interested in more information about these and other events can see the film “The Bay View Massacre of 1886” here and visit the Wisconsin Labor History Society web site here.)    Over a half century later during the New Deal, enactment of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act requiring employers to pay time and one half for hours worked over forty in the week gave proof of how we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before.

Union organizing, beginning in the mid-1930s and for several decades thereafter, entered its heyday.  Large industrial unions organized under the auspices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations joined alongside the growing ranks of the older unions affiliated with the AFL. By the mid twentieth century Wisconsin, like most heavily industrialized states, experienced relatively high unionization rates, and the higher standards of living that went with those higher unionization rates. However, in the wake of World War II and the advent of the Cold War, and nuclear arms race, life did not feel very secure. Wisconsin’s U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy epitomized and exploited that fear and paranoia. A good part of this fear and loathing was focused on unions, particularly those led by leaders on the left, or connected with Communism. This political atmosphere encouraged some employers to take a hard line in dealing with unions, even at the risk of prolonged labor disputes, such as the Kohler Strike of 1954-1965 over unfair labor practices. After losing judicial appeals that went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, the Company, after so many years, was forced to reinstate 57 workers, who were awarded 4.5 million in back pay and pension credits.  Newspapers too, such as the Milwaukee Journal, joined in targeting unions and labor leaders seen as radical or Communists. Over time many such leaders were displaced, and the model of social movement unionism, where it existed, faded in favor of a more conservative and politically orthodox business union model.

By the late twentieth century new economic forces were reshaping Wisconsin’s and the nation’s industrial landscape. Both automation and the direct off-shoring of industrial jobs by corporations were reducing the number of stable good paying jobs. Union membership and standards of living plateaued, and then began to shrink. Employment increased in the largely non-union service sector, where compensation was often lower. These trends were continued into the twenty-first century, and were accelerated by the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

As Wisconsin’s private sector unions gradually declined, until recently the opposite had been the case for the state’s public workers and their unions. Wisconsin was the birthplace of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and was the first state enabling  collective bargaining in the public sector. Eventually a labor relations system featuring unions with large public worker memberships emerged, with collective bargaining and an interest based arbitration dispute resolution process emerged. In the aftermath of the Great Recession’s severe economic downturn newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker, supported by Republican majorities in the state legislature moved to dismantle this labor relations system in 2011. In what has popularly become known as Act 10, the new state legislation imposed stringent new requirements and limitations on public workers and their unions. These included limiting collective bargaining to base wages only, with increases restricted to no more than the Consumer Price Index. It further mandated cost shifting of health insurance and pension costs from pubic employers to public employees, resulting in take home reductions averaging 8%. Act 10 also required public worker unions to win certification votes every year in collective bargaining units by more than 50% of those eligible to vote, not more than 50% of the ballots cast. This is a standard few politicians holding public offices could meet. It also eliminated union dues pay check deductions, and interest arbitration in collective bargaining dispute resolution. These provisions applied to most state, county, municipal and school district employees, but not police, firefighters and certain transportation workers. The introduction of Act 10 evoked massive opposition and protests, and de facto work stoppages, especially by teachers and teaching assistants. It also quickly led to the prolonged occupation of the State Capitol, and eventually the (unsuccessful) recall of the governor and some other politicians. Act 10 remains on the books and has resulted in the dramatic and precipitous decline of public worker unions’ memberships. Despite this, research that I and my colleagues have engaged in has documented significant instances of public worker union successes. Teachers have been especially creative in representing their interests and those of their students and communities. (For more on this, please see our website.)

Recently nurses at the University of Wisconsin Hospital have reorganized their union and begun organizing around the issue of the understaffing of the Hospital. They have been demanding that Hospital management meet with them to discuss improving nurse to patient ratios, and were waging a public campaign that seemed to be reaching a peak of activity just before the COVID-19 crisis began in    Wisconsin in March, 2020. The nurse’s bargaining unit, like the University of Wisconsin System, has no legal collective bargaining rights, which might well provide food for thought in the current public health crisis, and not only about the nurses, as essential as they are. We are learning that other workers, often taken for granted, are essential too. We must add grocery and pharmacy workers, utility and transportation workers, farmers and agricultural workers, many public workers, and a host of others to that list, and then ask if curtailing their collective bargaining and representation rights is really in the public interest. This public health crisis exposes many of the policy mistakes and mismanagement on all levels of government that have taken place in recent years. We will need the voices of workers and organized labor to help correct these errors in the future.

Today, as in the past, Wisconsin labor is bloodied but unbowed, and the state remains an important bell weather for labor. The common thread running through this history, is the ongoing fight working people have waged, sometimes in spectacular battles, more often on a day to day basis, to gain and hold the rights that we have today.


By: Professor David Nack