Wisconsin's Role in Labor History


In 1865 Molders Union Local 125 was formed in Milwaukee and became the nation's first modern trade union. In 1886, Milwaukee workers shut down most industrial plants during the first five days of May in pursuit of the eight-hour day. When thousands of protestors marched to Milwaukee's largest employer, Bay View Rolling Mills, the Wisconsin State Militia killed seven while firing into the crowd. Bay View came one day after the Haymarket Affair in Chicago. Although temporarily quieting the movement, labor learned that they could work in solidarity to achieve results. In 1867 the Knights of St. Crispin formed in Milwaukee and expanded to become the nation's largest union with over 50,000 shoemaker members.

Out of the tragic Bay View 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. At this time, "Fighting Bob" La Follette's Progressive Party came into power in the state. A 14-week citywide strike in Oshkosh in 1898 by more than 2,000 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. Councils of the American Federation of Labor, with Milwaukee's Federated Trades Council forming in 1887, supplanted several Knights of Labor chapters. 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 people like University of Wisconsin Economist, John R. Commons, and Progressive Governor, Robert M. La Follette, it was no wonder that in 1911 the State of Wisconsin passed the first workers compensation law and in 1932 passed unemployment compensation. In 1937, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Act was passed, which added 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 fought back and resisted unionization during the years of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1941. 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 lasing from 1954 to 1960. 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.

A tradition of solidarity helped Wisconsin lead the way in public employee unionism. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers was founded in 1936 in Madison, WI. 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 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.

Wisconsin labor law became a model for the nation. It was a success, because 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. 

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. President Reagan's unchallenged firing of Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) members, the growing globalization of the workforce and the uncompromising attitude of employers against unions, all worked to the disadvantage of workers. The State of Wisconsin's onetime industrial might was decimated by plant shutdowns and downsizing, as jobs went to so-called right-to-work states or overseas. Due to the fear of strikebreaking, fewer Wisconsin 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. A Patrick Cudahy strike in the late 1980s added concerns over the use of minority workers as strikebreakers. Labor has been up to the challenge. Although it represents a lower percentage of the workforce, the union movement during the 1900s has looked to greater involvement in order coalitions, particularly those representing minority groups or the environmental movement.

The labor movement in Wisconsin has become more involved than ever in political and legislative activity, providing a major voice in protecting consumers and ordinary citizens. Wisconsin unions are working more cooperatively, seeking to build a common front against such restrictions as the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) and municipal spending caps, which affect teachers and public employees. Among union members in Wisconsin, there is greater solidarity and dedication. Labor's history tells us that the struggle is an evolving, always seeking to move forward to build a better life for the workers of future generations.

Noteworthy Times in Wisconsin's Labor History
1848 – The Ship Carpenters held the successful strike in Milwaukee.

1867 – The Knights of St. Crispin, a union of shoemakers, was founded in Milwaukee. It became our nation's largest union, but dissolved in the Panic of 1873.

1886 – The Bay View Tragedy is Wisconsin's worst example of labor violence. The Wisconsin State Militia killed seven workers while they were on a peaceful march to establish the eight-hour workday.

1893 – The State Federation of Labor was founded. It was the predecessor of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO.

1897 – The Socialist Party in Milwaukee was formed and provided the basis for progressive action in the State of Wisconsin.

1898 – Woodworkers in Oshkosh conducted a city-wide strike. At trial conspiracy charges were beaten back by famed Defense Attorney, Clarence Darrow.

1900 - 1905 – Strikes by paper workers for the right to have Saturday night "off" was first won, and then lost in Wisconsin paper-mills, as employers busted union efforts.

1911 – The first Workers Compensation Law in the United States was established in Wisconsin.

1932 – The first Unemployment Compensation Law in the United States passed in Wisconsin.

1935 – The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union was founded in Madison, Wisconsin, and it is now one of largest unions in the United States.

1936 - 1939 – Workers organized into unions after the passage of the Wagner Act. Hundreds of thousands of workers joined in factories from Kenosha to Superior. This made Wisconsin one of most heavily unionized states, and created top wages and benefits for all workers in state.

1939 - 1947 – Strikes at the Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co. in West Allis, Wisconsin became national symbols of the struggle for shop floor rights and created debate over the role of communism in unions.

1958 – The Wisconsin State AFL-CIO was created through the merger of the State Federation of Labor and the Wisconsin CIO.

1959 – The Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act passed in the Wisconsin legislature, which was one of first in nation.

1954 - 1965 – A long strike by the UAW at Kohler Co. ended with the union and the company establishing a peace.

1963 - 1970 – Migrant farm workers organized in the state of Wisconsin, and were aided by the widespread support of many unions, including the AFL-CIO.

For more information visit the Wisconsin Labor History Society.