On May 4, 1886, Wisconsin Gov. Jeremiah Rusk acceded to the business community of Milwaukee and ordered the State Militia dispatched to quell what they claimed were “riots.”
The “rioters” were workers who had walked out of their jobs in most of Milwaukee’s factories as part of a nationwide campaign for workers seeking the establishment of the eight-hour day. The marches and rallies were peaceful.
Trouble began when the Bay View Rolling Mills – then the city’s largest manufacturer – continued to operate. Masses of workers had marched on successive days beginning on May 1 to urge the mill to close and to have the mill workers join the campaign. The company refused.
When some 1,500 workers approached the mill on May 5, the State Militia was poised atop the hill before the plant, rifles poised with orders to “take an aim, pick out your man, and kill him.” As the marchers – unarmed and peaceful in purpose – approached, they were ordered from 200 yards away to halt. In the era before loudspeakers, it’s doubtful they heard the order. The order to fire was given: at least seven persons were killed by bullets from the Militia.
Governor Rusk went on to fame and a U.S. cabinet post to boot. The eight-hour-day movement was temporarily squelched, though a strong progressive political movement was born in Wisconsin, stemming from the need for working people to better their lives.
Now, 125 years later, comes Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin as a latter-day Jeremiah Rusk.
Like Rusk, he, too, is doing the bidding of the business community.
On February 11 this year, Walker announced he had alerted the National Guard to be ready to intervene should public workers demonstrate or walk off their jobs in protest to his dictatorial actions to unilaterally take away their benefits, working conditions and other union-protected rights. Walker claims he can do it, and with a Republican-controlled State Legislature ready to do his bidding, it seems highly likely he could get away with it.
After gutting the worker’s earnings through mandated increases in employee contributions to health insurance and pension premiums accompanied by a freeze in pay increases, his plan is to take away virtually all areas of bargaining from the unions, except wages. Further, he would require annual representation elections to keep the union certified and he would remove both agency shop fee payments and dues checkoff, virtually killing the unions’ ability to represent its members from management transgressions.
No doubt Walker will be cheered by the State’s business community – as well as many misguided editorial writers – as he seeks not only to take money out of the pockets and purses of public employees, but also to bust the unions. He’s made no mystery of his belief that public employees, working under civil service rules, do not need union protections. Apparently, his idea is that politicians will protect the rights of public employees. If that was the case, why is it that public workers join unions in such overwhelming numbers?
And, don’t think for a minute that the state’s private employee union members will be exempt from this onslaught of anti-unionism.
Walker has announced this state is “Open for Business,” and in his mind that means it will become a low-wage, minimum benefit state; taxes on the rich and businesses will be so low that our educational system will flounder even moreso. Our state’s prized environment will become a cesspool of development (with substandard construction, as a result of relaxed building codes and standards, along with the loss of Davis-Bacon rules protecting construction workers).
The parallels between Governor Jeremiah Rusk and Governor Scott Walker are just too frighteningly similar to ignore. Are the working people of Wisconsin ready to return to the standards of 125 years ago?
Workers and unions are organizing quickly to assure that doesn’t happen. The hope is that widespread public support follows, even in face of the threat that the National Guard may be staring workers down in a potential shootout. – Ken Germanson, Feb. 12, 2011.
Read Thomas Sobottke’s comments here