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Episode 3: Labor left and right

Firefighter, UAW and Wisconsin AFL-CIO protestors
Wisconsin Historical Society, George Walker IV, Manuel Balce Ceneta
AP Photo
In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state in the U.S. to grant collective bargaining rights to public sector unions. But decades later in 2011, Wisconsin would lead the fight against public sector unions, with a landmark bill called Act 10.

Wisconsin has historically led the nation in creating, and limiting, union rights and bargaining power. We explore what that means for the state’s politics and culture.

This is Swing State of the Union — a podcast all about Wisconsin and why it's so important to U.S. politics.

Today we’re exploring Wisconsin’s union history, the impact of deindustrialization and new union movements in the state.

In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state in the US to grant collective bargaining rights to public sector unions. But decades later in 2011, Wisconsin would lead the fight against these same unions with a bill called Act 10 that caused a massive protest and made international headlines.

"The debate over state budget deficits has led to chaos in Wisconsin, with protesters hanging over balconies in the statehouse and lawmakers going AWOL."

Although Act 10 was called a budget repair bill, its impact on public sector unions is what catapulted it into the global spotlight. The law stripped collective bargaining rights from nearly all public sector unions, only allowing them to negotiate over base wage increases at the rate of inflation. Police and fire unions were spared.

As many as a 100,000 people came out in protest — with thousands setting up camp inside the Capitol. For months, chants of “This is what democracy looks like,” and “whose house, our house,” flooded the air. All 14 Democratic Senators fled the state in protest to prevent a vote.

But the movement failed, and Act 10 passed. Just a few years later the state would pass a right-to-work bill, barring private sector unions from requiring dues from the employees they represent, damaging their stability.

In the years since, Wisconsin has seen a bigger drop in union-membership than any other state — a loss of nearly 10% of its workforce, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. And as union shops left cities throughout the state, their promise of a brighter future for the average, blue-collar worker often vanished with them.

But Wisconsin wasn’t always like this. In fact, Milwaukeeans had been at the forefront of the U.S. labor movement for decades.

The history of unions and labor organizing in Wisconsin is at least as old as the state itself. By the time Wisconsin became a state in 1848, bricklayers and carpenters in Milwaukee were already unionized.

But the relationship between labor and politics in Wisconsin was solidified in 1886, when workers across the nation demanded an eight-hour workday without a cut in pay.

In May of that year, Milwaukee workers called a general strike, wherein people across multiple industries refused to work.

As Milwaukee historian John Gurda explains, employers and state militia joined forces to stop the strike. After protestors refused to leave, state militia shot at them in an event known as the Bay View Massacre.

"First week of May 1886 underlined that in labor history, both here and nationally. That's when the strikers pretty much shutdown the city, you know, the general strike that paralyzed Milwaukee and there was one major employer that was still open and that was the Bay View Rolling Mill. And they came one day largely, I think it was about 1200 strikers and the there was a militia stationed there and they kind of scared them away. They showered the militia with, you know, dead chickens and stones and sticks and all sorts of things. But they said they come back the next day. They did, the militia was waiting for them and morning of May 5th, which is a day after the Haymarket shootings in Chicago. You know, so yeah, people are just nerves around on a knife edge, you know, nationally. Militia fired on those marching strikers at a distance of 200 yards killed seven people, so that was the the bloodiest labor disturbance in Wisconsin's history. And that really was a watershed politically," Gurda explains.

The strike’s momentum slowed after these killings, but momentum in favor of a standardized eight-hour workday continued. In the next election, a new populist movement, called the People’s Party, swept county seats and solidified the relationship between labor organizing and political activity in Wisconsin. Milwaukee-area Republicans and Democrats joined forces to stop the People’s Party in subsequent elections.

But the Bay View Massacre had made it clear that existing political parties were not going to speak to the concerns of Milwaukee’s workers, especially its working class German immigrants. Gurda explains how this led to the creation of Milwaukee’s Socialist Party, led by Victor Berger and allied with Milwaukee’s workers.

"The People's Party was a reaction to those shootings. It was a a clear sign that industrial property was valued more highly than industrial workers, you know, so that's a huge red flag. They began to organize nationally as well. But Milwaukee, you know, is very widespread and very effective. And then what happened? You have at the same time kind of these parallel tracks, you have Socialists, going back to the 1840s when you have this kind of liberal element in German immigration, especially in Milwaukee being the most German city in the country. A lot of those people came with these ideas... The left has always been kind of famously fractious, you know, so they had a hard time organizing until Victor Berger arrives. And what he developed was, he called it, the Milwaukee Idea and what that meant was you have a two-armed labor movement — one side labor, one side of politics and together, you know, they kind of work for the cooperative commonwealth, you know. So after a few years of organizing, the people who ran the unions were the same people who ran the party," Gurda explains.

Milwaukee would elect three socialist mayors who governed for the majority of the first half of the 20th century. In other parts of Wisconsin, especially in rural areas, it was the Progressives, led by Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who represented working-class farmers who had similar grievances.

La Follette emphasized railroad reform in favor of reducing transportation costs forfarmers, direct primaries and direct elections of U.S. senators — who at the time were not elected by a state’s populace but by state senators.

Progressives led by La Follette and Socialists led by Berger differed on some issues, but ultimately worked together in the state Legislature to pass worker-friendly legislation. Here’s Gurda again:

"It was by no means clear cut, but you have pretty much different constituencies with sympathetic platforms. A little suspicion — Berger talked about Lafollette as being just tinkering, you know, with mechanics of government, whereas he stood for a wholesale, remaking transformation of American policy. So you have some differences, but the 1911 Legislature, the famous 1911 Legislature, they worked together, you know, unemployment compensation, workers comp. I know that was the early ground breaking Legislature and and it was both Progressive and Socialist."

Similar alliances between labor and politicians were solidified around the country, especially during the Great Depression. But, while FDR’s New Deal coalition would lead to decades of Democratic Party dominance, it would come at the expense of Progressives and Socialists, who were able to get some of their policies put in place nationally — like Social Security and unemployment insurance, but who slowly saw their voters move to the Democrats.

Still, by the middle of the 20th century, labor was hitting its zenith. By the 1950s, about one-third of private-sector jobs nationwide were unionized and organized labor recognized the need for political action to protect the gains they had won for workers. Political scientist Phillip Rocco explains:

"This affected life in a pretty profound way, not just on the shop floor, not just in terms of people's ability to bargain collectively with their employers, but also in the political arena. Unions typically have a committee on political education, which organizes their members, educates people about politics and even some really obscure issues, which are going to affect the lives of of working class people. And so it's really hard to think about politics in the middle of the the 20th century in Wisconsin without thinking about the role of organized labor."

The middle of the 20th century was also when Wisconsin’s union jobs were increasingly held by people of color. Though early labor movements were spearheaded by European immigrants who were ethnically discriminated against, many unions in Milwaukee and Wisconsin did not encourage, or did not allow, people of color to join their ranks. Racial discrimination was also used as a strike-breaking tactic by employers, who recruited laborers of color to work when white unionized labor was on strike.

But as Milwaukee historian Reggie Jackson explains, World War Two saw Wisconsin’s unionized manufacturing jobs open to Black people coming north in the Great Migration, and immigrants from Mexico and these jobs supported a multi-racial middle class.

"Milwaukee's Black population was very small in 1940, less than 9,000 Blacks lived in the city in 1940. By 1950 was over 21,000, 62,000 by 1960 and over 105,000 by 1970, and that change was primarily a result of the fact that people knew there were good manufacturing jobs in Milwaukee and they came from the South and other places throughout the state of Wisconsin, even. And it shifted, you know, the fortunes of a lot of people put them in a position where they could do really well. And unfortunately, I tell people all the time that Black people came to Milwaukee at the wrong time. They came at the latter end of great migration out of the South, where some 6,000,000 Blacks fled to the former Confederate states and moved to other places. But they didn't move to Milwaukee in large numbers until World War Two, when the factories in Milwaukee finally opened up their doors to to Black workers. The unions, which had discriminated against Blacks for decades, finally opened membership to Black workers for the first time, and Black people who live in Milwaukee, you know, call their family members and friends in the South and told them, you know,'It's a good place to be. There's there's good jobs here,'" Jackson explains.

But as Jackson alludes to, widespread unionized jobs would not last in Wisconsin. Deindustrialization, or the process of transitioning out of an industrial economy, hit unionized labor hard. As jobs that were previously unionized left Wisconsin or were eliminated, communities that had been organized around industrial labor would be changed forever.

We’ll look at how the loss of auto manufacturing plants in Kenosha, Wisconsin affected life in the city, and how this changed Wisconsin’s politics.

The story of deindustrialization is one that’s played out in towns throughout the nation. But for small, Rust Belt cities like Kenosha, the impact has been metamorphic.

People outside of Wisconsin may think of the city’s name as a synonym for racial conflict, when protests after Jacob Blake was shot by police in 2020 ended in the deaths of two protesters and made international headlines.

But for people who worked at American Motors in the 1970s — like John Drew, a former, Kenosha-area leader of the United Auto Workers, it was a paragon of diversity and community.

"One of the things that we were very fortunate was that we did work in an integrated environment. You work side by side with Black workers, white workers from the South, white workers from northern Wisconsin. We were all getting paid the same. We were all doing the same kind of work. We all had the same kind of hopes and aspirations in terms of, you know, making it," Drew says.

Kenosha was like a lot of factory towns of its time. In many ways, it seemed like the city revolved around the working hours of the plants, which accounted for more than a 100 acres of prime real estate in Kenosha including on the shores of Lake Michigan. When Drew started working there, he was impressed by its enormity.

"When I started an American Motors in Kenosha, there were 10,000 members of Local 72, and it was a huge, bustling, sprawling plant with all kinds of things going on. We built several different models of cars. We made the engines there, all the stampings for the cars were made there. It was a huge complex with two plants, one in the middle of the city called the main plant and another one — a lakefront plant. So it was a whole world unto itself," he says.

The union had come to power in Kenosha amid the Great Depression, when workers at what was then Nash Motors staged a strike and ultimately won the right to organize. In the following decades, the United Auto Workers Local 72 had come to dominate life in Kenosha — both at work and at play.

"The union was very involved in the community, you know, through our community service activities. Recreation activities were through the union. You know, we had softball tournaments and bowling leagues, and we sponsored a Boy Scout troop and a Little League team and all of that. So it was really a place where people came together, not just to work but also to socialize and democratically participate in decision making through their union," Drew says.

Even when Drew began working there, American Motors was a relatively small automaker whose fate often relied on the popularity of the models they were producing. Jobs at the plant had ebbed and flowed over the decades, but the union had helped create secure, middle-class jobs for its members.

But in the early 1980s things were changing in Kenosha and around the nation. The economy was shifting to more service-oriented work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, machinery manufacturing, which includes automaking, lost nearly 14% of its jobs over the course of the decade.

Kathryn Dudley is an anthropology professor at Yale University, and the author of End of the Line, which explores what happened in Kenosha. She grew up in Racine, just down the road from Kenosha. She has fond memories of riding around in her grandad’s Rambler, hot off the line from American Motors.

"I remember, you know, the Labor Day parades and the union picnics and the sense of social life that revolved around the friends and family who were coworkers in a place like that," she says.

Dudley says that in many ways, southeastern Wisconsin was defined by this culture of automaking. But that identity wouldn’t help Kenosha avoid the fate that so many other factories had met at that time. The oil crises in the 1970s had shifted the market away from domestic cars, and American Motors was struggling to survive.

By 1987, John Drew was working with the union to negotiate a deal with the state of Wisconsin to try to help the plant stay afloat. For Drew, the moment played out like a scene from a film.

"We were at the Hyatt Regency in Milwaukee negotiating and we got a call in the middle of the night that Chrysler had bought American Motors and we immediately stopped negotiations because both sides were sort of up in the air. What was going to happen and I remember very clearly. People were excited that, oh, this is great, Chrysler bought American motors. And I remember a couple of us who are on the bargaining committee, we kind of went off to the side and said, 'Yeah, this could be pretty bad,'" Drew says.

They were right. Not long after the sale, Chrysler announced it was shutting down auto assembly at the Kenosha plants.

The UAW worked hard to avoid the closure, as Drew explains.

"Within a few days of the announcement, we shut down the plant and we had a rally on 52nd St. in Kenosha with Jesse Jackson, you know, speaking to our members and, you know, starting the fight. We picketed any place we found ... anywhere near Kenosha. We went to the shareholders meeting in New York City. We made it into a huge deal that what they were doing was wrong, you know, not just because they had made promises, but what the effect was going to be on the community and what the effect was on the workers," he says.

Still, on December 23, 1988, the Kenosha plants stopped making passenger vehicles. Some people left for jobs at other plants in other cities, attempting to outrun the tide of deindustrialization that came for so many of them. Some continued working at the Kenosha engine plant, which continued operations on a much smaller scale until 2010. Others stayed in the area and looked for other work, but found little that could compare with the union-backed jobs they’d once enjoyed.

And for many, this loss was about more than their work, as Kathryn Dudley explains.

"I think the real trauma of what a plant closing can mean, especially when you're thinking of something that is region wide and that is a real, not just the loss of a certain kind of expectation or a family tradition, all of which are are really important, but it really is a kind of a crushing of a sense of hope — a hope in the future, a hope in what possibility. And having the difficulty of understanding what happened, you know, how could this have happened?," she says.

In the years after the plant closed, the political landscape of Kenosha changed. As Dudley explains, the union had helped create a pathway to the middle class for generations of Kenoshans. Now that pathway was gone.

The auto industry was hit hard by the changing economy, but it wasn’t alone. Since deindustrialization began, many industries and cities outside of the Rust Belt have faced their own declines. The impact is often the same.

"Whether you're a furniture factory in the southeast or the northeast, whether you are a rancher in, you know, the Great Basin out West, whether you're a farmer in, you know, the heartland of the United States or you are an industrial worker in the Rust Belt, you are still confronted with what once was possible is no longer possible. The underlying sense, which is extremely powerful and part of the kind of backlash and critique that we're grappling with today, comes from that very real lived experience of seeing respectability in a middle class standard of living slip through your fingers and your children's. And, you know, that's happened in a span of 50 years," Dudley says.

State Rep. Tod Ohnstad, a former worker at the plant and UAW member, watched as the city changed around him.

"We went from manufacturing town with strong unionization to a lot of warehouses without that unionization and consequently not the same level of wages and benefits as what was enjoyed by the auto industry and other industries and the plants as well. We were very, very active politically and I think that the amount of unionization in all of the industrial plants and not just the American Motors / Chrysler plants, but, you know, all of the plants, you know, were largely supportive of Democratic candidates, and consequently Kenosha was once considered, you know, a very safe Democratic county," he says.

After decades of voting for Democratic presidential candidates, Kenosha was among 23 counties in Wisconsin that flipped for Donald Trump in 2016.

So let’s get back to Act 10, and why it sparked mass protests from unionized workers across the state. For these workers, stories like Kenosha were a warning for what could happen to their communities as union jobs left, and Act 10 appeared to be another nail in the coffin of organized labor. So when thousands occupied the Wisconsin state Capitol in protest, the fight wasn’t just about Act 10 — it was an existential crisis.

But unions are making a comeback in Wisconsin’s post-industrial economy. Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality workers, or MASH, has been involved in labor organizing for years. MASH represents some Milwaukee service industry workers, including bartenders, servers and baristas.

Organizers recently agreed to a community benefits agreement with the Milwaukee Bucks, the city’s professional basketball team. Among other things, the agreement allowed workers to organize a union without disruption. Rickman explains why this agreement is important and how current unionization efforts relate to politics.

Sam Woods: So earlier this year, a coalition of workers struck a community benefits agreement with the Milwaukee Bucks, which said that in exchange for public money to build a new downtown stadium, Bucks ownership would agree to certain terms for worker rights. How did this agreement come to be, and why is it important?

Peter Rickman: So, when Herb Kohl was selling the Bucks to a new set of owners, they were quite literally billionaires and multimillionaires in finance and insurance and real estate. And they said, “You know what? We want public funds to build a new arena and to do a little real estate project around it.” And, you know, what hit me was, this is the moment where if we don't stand up as a city and say, “If you want $100 million, $500 million of public funds to build an arena and surrounding development, we’d better get something out of it.” And so, a group of us who'd been part of the work around racial and economic and social justice here in Milwaukee said, “Let's build a campaign. Let's make exactly that bold demand of living wages, union rights and jobs for folks who need them the most. And it turns out that a bunch of policymakers, politicians joined with us, and were willing to stand up and say, “Yeah, this moment is one where we should stand up for working people.” And I will say there were owners of the team and leaders of the Milwaukee Bucks who said, “Actually, we're concerned about some of these things too and this is a really concrete way to do something about this. So yeah, let's negotiate a community benefits agreement. And you know what, let's make this a landmark that others look to.” So, this community benefits agreement outlined that for all the work that would follow in the Deer District, what we now know as Fiserv Forum and the surrounding development, folks would be paid a living wage, have the ability to form a union without threats, coercion, intimidation and opposition from the boss, which happens in virtually every union organizing drive. In this case, workers got to proudly talk about how they were building the union on the job, and they didn't face opposition from the boss. And, Milwaukee used to be considered the best place in America for working class people of color to raise a family. We're now considered the worst. So, we also negotiated in the community benefits agreement that these jobs, the kinds of jobs that we need to create with living wages and union rights, folks who have been left behind by the income inequality economy the hardest would get first dibs.

Woods: Is there precedent for this community benefit agreement where a sports team agreed to worker protections in exchange for public dollars to build an arena?

Rickman: This is, to my knowledge, the first one in sort of a non-major city. When you're talking about a Milwaukee or a Kansas City, or, you know, Saint Louis or Detroit or Minneapolis, St. Paul, you know, Midwestern, medium size, large city, they're not exactly, you know, a day-to-day occurrence. And so, I do get calls from people in those cities saying, “Well, what’d you do and how’d you do it? Because we want to do the same thing here.”

Joy Powers: How does the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality workers, or MASH, come into play here?

Rickman: When you negotiate an agreement like that, that's one thing to have a signed document and another thing to implement it. And so, an organization needed to carry forward the monitoring, the enforcing and the implementing of this community benefits agreement. So, those of us who've been behind it said, “Well, we need something fit for purpose. We can't just put it inside an existing union or community group because they’re not fundamentally capable of doing this.” It's not a critique, it's just, this is something new and transformational and different. And so, that's how MASH came to be, an organization to implement that community benefits agreement. And then build what, you know, I call the unit of our dreams, the kind of member driven, democratic, worker centered organization that fights for what it can get and has a missionary zeal to expand across the whole of that 55,000 or so set of cooks and cleaners and bartenders and baristas.

Powers: You mentioned you had allies and politicians when negotiating this community benefits agreement. And historically, unions in Wisconsin and nationwide have allied with political parties. What is your approach to upcoming elections?

Rickman: In the United States, in a different era, the union movement was heavily identified with the Democratic Party. And in some cases, was a major force in impacting the way the party and government governed. It built up the Democratic Party in the electorate. There's a reason why the New Deal Coalition that had governing power in the United States for 40ish years, you know, was really rooted in the labor movement and, you know, it put people into office of the Democratic Party and ran that organization. You know, Bill Clinton is the one who passed NAFTA and drove a semi-truck over not just northern industrial workers, but through the industrial outposts of the rural South. And it's what decimated the Democratic Party, and the union movement really couldn't do much about it. So, it's a conflicted relationship. And so, you know, I don't think the role of unions in the political process can just be to sort of like tail the Democrats or just to support the Democrats. The role of the labor movement in the political process has to be to articulate a broad program of social uplift for working class people, generally. But it gets pretty mixed up for a lot of us in the union movement when we have to think about things like, “What do we do in the 2024 election for president?” It gets pretty difficult when you start to think about, “What do you do in the 2026 gubernatorial election here in Wisconsin?” And was in 2018 and 2022, when we don't necessarily have, in the Democratic Party, folks who have an alignment of values with us.

Wisconsin is again among the leaders of the union movements emerging throughout the U.S., as service-sector workers have begun to fight for better working conditions.

Colectivo Coffee, a roaster based in Milwaukee, recently became the largest unionized coffee chain in the nation. Organizations like MASH have led the way for new unions, shaped to meet the needs of new labor.

As union strength grows, could its political power follow in an important swing state like Wisconsin? We could find out in November. And the fight over Act 10 isn't over.

In November of last year, a coalition of unions filed a lawsuit challenging Act 10 — claiming it violates the Wisconsin Constitution's equal protection guarantee. And even today, more than a century after workers shed blood for their rights in Bay View, Milwaukeeans gather to remember what they’re fighting for.

The battle over labor rights keeps marching on.

On the next episode of Swing State of the Union — voter rights.

"There just began to be more limitations and requirements and structure put on the voting process, putting some limits on what communities could do in terms of the number of early voting locations they were allowed to have, to the degree that those things didn't go into effect, it was mostly because there were lawsuits."

Who gets to vote? Next time on Swing State of the Union.

"Swing State of the Union" is produced by WUWM, Milwaukee’s NPR - a part of the NPR Network. Please subscribe to the "Swing State of the Union" podcast wherever you like to listen.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.