Historical Look at How Wisconsin Lost Its Progressivism

(Following is an executive summary of a paper presented by Ken Germanson on Oct. 24 at the North American Labor History Conference in Detroit.  The full document is available here.)

It was tragically ironic: the year 2011 marked the 100th Anniversary of the passage in Wisconsin of pioneering, progressive, pro-worker legislation; it also became the year in which one of the most regressive, anti-labor laws would be passed – the infamous Act 10 that virtually ended the right of public employees to collectively bargain. Four years later, in March of 2015, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the so-called right-to-work law, followed by cutting back on the protections of the state’s David-Bacon Act covering construction trades unions.

This paper will seek to put some perspective on how that change occurred; it will seek to explain how a state that passed the nation’s first, lasting workers compensation law in 1911 and also passed the first full-fledged public employee collective bargaining law in 1959 would in 2011 and 2015 take away basic worker rights that would likely result in robbing them of much hope for a rewarding life of work.

Wisconsin had been viewed as a beacon of progressive laws, such as being one of the first to provide for election-day voter registration. National pundits have declared it a so-called Blue State that had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.   We will look at how Wisconsin has joined the once-union-strong Rust Belt states like Michigan to become “open shop” states.

There are five basic reasons for the State’s abrupt turn against workers and unions:

  1. The state has a split political personality; historically most of the counties in the state have voted Republican while the more urban, industrial areas have been Democratic. The split has always been there, even though the nature of the two parties has changed through the years.
  2. The flight of industry to the South and later out of the country took away the state’s heavy concentrations of manufacturing bringing about the loss of union membership.
  3. The mobilization of antiunion efforts by big business has grown more intense and effective in recent years, both in their handling of workers and in public education campaigns.
  4. The stealth campaign waged by Governor Walker hid his true anti-worker agenda, making it possible to spring the damaging legislation on an unsuspecting public and labor movement.
  5. Finally, the failure of the state’s labor unions throughout the years to mount an effective campaign to counter the growing antiunionism.

Wisconsin labor, however, is more determined than ever to rebound; its leaders are open to new ideas to make it happen. As one said, “We are awakened. We are like roaches: we will come back.”

(See full document here.)

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