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Economy & Business

Wisconsin Once a Leader in Creating Public Unions, Now in Weakening Them


The Wisconsin AFL-CIO held a pro labor rally in Milwaukee on Wednesday. The event was part of a statewide tour that will end in Madison on Saturday, to mark the one-year anniversary of Governor Walker restricting collective bargaining rights for public workers.

As WUWM’s Bob Bach reports, Wisconsin is at the forefront of retracting public union gains that opponents insist went too far, while the state was once a leader in creating worker protections.

Wisconsin labor history is laced with notable events. For instance, the first modern trade union was formed in Milwaukee in 1865, about the time the city was absorbing German immigrants. Wisconsin Labor Historian Ken Germanson says many brought along their socialist traditions. But he says what really motivated laborers here to unite, was their desire to end dangerous working conditions, including 72-hour weeks with no overtime.

In May of 1886, hundreds went on strike to demand an eight-hour workday. Germanson recounts the tragic consequences as strikers approached the Bay View Rolling Mill near today’s Coast Guard station.

"The workers started rallying at St. Stanislaus church on 5th and Mitchell and as they approached the mill, the state militia was stationed on this hill. Two hundred yards away they ordered them to stop, they didn’t hear ‘em, so the colonel ordered them to shoot. “Pick out your man, take aim and kill him,” that was his specific order. Well, they killed seven that day," Germanson says.

The gunfire scattered the marchers but did not end their hopes. Germanson says the Bay View tragedy galvanized laborers and raised public awareness about factory conditions.

"And out of that we got the nation’s first workers’ compensation law in 1911. During that whole reform movement the state apprenticeship program started that year, because when you have large numbers of people you are able to able to create change," Germanson says.

Two decades later, the federal Wagner Act accelerated unionization by preventing employers from interfering.

At the time, Milwaukee was among the communities here filled with people working side-by-side in manufacturing plants. So labor organizers could quickly describe the blessings of collective bargaining and then move on to the next factory. Workers responded. Union shops in Wisconsin proliferated throughout the 1950s as American industry ran full blast to satisfy the reconstruction needs of war-ravaged Europe and Asia.

Stephanie Bloomingdale of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO says the high rate of unionization – at one point, 34 percent of workers here, helped boost the state economy by providing job security and decent wages.

"We know that when there is a higher density of unionization that the middle class does better. And, we know that the wages that are set by the unionized contracts affect not only those workers in the unionized company, but also in the entire community," Bloomingdale says.

Union membership in Wisconsin reached a zenith in 1960s, after a new state law granted public workers the right to form unions. Just as their private counterparts did, the public unions negotiated for better wages and benefits, work rules and job security.

But conditions began changing in the 1970s, according to UWM History Professor Glen Jeansonne. He says technology and globalization started taking their toll on American “assembly lines” and their unions, by demanding fewer workers and lower costs. Today, Jeansonne says only seven percent of private sector workers here belong to unions, and in the wake of a gripping recession, a tide has been pushing against the 36 percent of unionized public workers.

"The employers at the most basic level are taxpayers. They’re very demanding. If they feel their money is wasted, or they get ideas that government employees are overpaid, there’s a backlash," Jeansonne says.

There has also been backlash by public workers and unions, all putting Wisconsin again in the forefront of perhaps indicating the country’s preferred direction.