Historic Wisconsin Primary again in spotlight

This year, for the first time in 24 years, Wisconsin voters find themselves in the spotlight as the nation watches the presidential primaries of both parties.  Many pundits say Tuesday’s primary may be a change-making primary election.

Until the 1980s, the Wisconsin primary was always one of the first in the country, being held in April, ahead of most other states.  As early as 1912 when the Republican Party was engaged in a truly revolutionary primary campaign, the Wisconsin primary was in a key decision-making role nationally. In that 1912 election, Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette shook up the Republican presidential nomination by throwing hit hat in the ring for the Republican nomination, in opposition to his long-time political friend, Teddy


Fighting Bob La Follette

Roosevelt, who was running on the so-called “Bull Moose” ticket for the Republican nomination. Also of the ballot was William Howard Taft who had been Teddy’s original pick to succeed him as president in 1908. So here we had in Wisconsin a fight going on between two progressive Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bob La Follette, against a moderately progressive Republican, the incumbent President Taft.

Wisconsin at that time was one of about six states to have presidential primaries.  It was a new process having been established first in 1905 in the state of Oregon.  Wisconsin followed soon after.  Wisconsin’s role as one of the first truly consequential primary states in each election year didn’t change until the 1980s when other states started jockeying to hold elections “first.”  Thus it was that Iowa became the first caucus state and New  Hampshire the first state to hold a direct presidential primary.

I had to smile this weekend at news reports of how Ted Cruz and John Kasich showed up at Milwaukee’s American Serb Memorial Hall for its legendary Friday fish fry, where the candidates go table-to-table to greet voters, most of whom are more dedicated to their fried fish than a candidate’s handshake.  It reminded me of the time in 1972 when they were four major candidates vying for the Democratic nomination that year. At that time I was the Milwaukee county chairman for Senator Hubert Humphrey.  His campaign staff had asked me to advise them on where to have the candidate show up during the weekend before the Wisconsin election, which was also Easter weekend.  We knew it very would be hard to find venues where anybody would show up to hear their words.  As I was the so-called resident expert on local politics, I suggested that the Friday fish fry at Serb Hall would be a natural. And so it happened all of the other candidates also showed up for the Friday fish fry.  Then the question came what shall we do for Easter Sunday and I suggested that we go to the zoo. It was a popular place for families after all.

Lo and behold what do you think happened?  All four presidential candidates in the Democratic Party showed at the zoo, hoping to gain a little bit of a soundbite on the local news channels.  It was a frigid day and unfortunately it appeared the media outnumbered the families.

So much for my campaign expertise.

In the 1960 election of President Kennedy, the Wisconsin primary played a critical role.  He narrowly won here, but the win showed he could beat a man who had been called “Wisconsin’s third senator.”  Hubert Humphrey was senator from neighboring Minnesota and a frequent visitor to the state; he had many friends among the Democratic party leadership.  Kennedy’s win led him to the eventual nomination and election as President.

John Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, as his campaign manager, literally lived in the state during the 30 days before the April primary.  In Theodore White’s outstanding history, “The Making of the President – 1960,” he describes how Kennedy began his campaign on a chilly March day in the old logging town of Mellen, standing alone and hatless on a windblown street.

The Wisconsin primaries in 1968 and 1972 helped to bring reforms to the Democratic Party.  In 1968, another Minnesota Senator, Eugene McCarthy easily won here as the “so-called” peace candidate who openly opposed US involvement in Vietnam.  Since the primary was held just days after incumbent President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from his re-election campaign and before Bobby Kennedy was on the ballot, the McCarthy win was not consequential in the eventual nomination.  Vice President Humphrey entered the


Campaign flyer for Eugene McCarthy candidacy in 1968

race, but declined to participate in primaries; he was content to accept establishment delegates.  Yet, the primary was important to show the strength of the more liberal, anti-war wing of the State’s Democrats.  A Gene McCarthy supporter, Don Peterson of Chippewa Falls, took over leadership of the State Democratic Party.  Humphrey, however, went on to win the nomination, but the disaffection of many anti-war voters may have resulted in the win by Richard Nixon.

Four years later, another leading critic of the War, Sen. George McGovern won the primary, beating out Hubert Humphrey, the candidate favored by most of labor at the time, Washington Sen. Henry Jackson and New York Mayor John Lindsay.  The turmoil of the primaries and the Democratic conventions prompted the party to reform itself, but taking away much of the power of the establishment Democrats.

The eventual nominations of Jimmy Carter in 1976, who narrowly beat out labor-endorsed Arizona Sen. Morris Udall, and Bill Clinton in 1992, who narrowly won over California Gov. Jerry Brown, all were made possible by the early wins in the Wisconsin primary.

This year, after a generation of being an “also ran” among the states holding primaries, Wisconsin voters again finding themselves in a key decision-making role.  While two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, though heavy leaders for their parties’ nominations, are still seeking to solidity their delegate totals.  Each of them, with their rivals, are said to be “make-or-break” positions.

The State’s labor movement, however, is no longer playing as strong a role in the primary process as it did in the past.  Nonetheless, in a situation where a few votes can sway a nomination, the role of working people and their unions can be critical.  – Ken Germanson, April 3, 2016


It’s time to raise my taxes — and maybe even yours, too!

It’s doubtful anyone will be reading this column.  Who wants to be told they need to pay higher taxes, especially in mid-March, as income tax season is upon us?

Yet, buried in the news of this ludicrous Presidential election campaign is the troubling realization that our country is falling apart — literally.

The DC Metro in Washington shutdown on March 16, throwing that city into turmoil.

Electrical maintenance issues were blamed for creating safety issues that could have maimed or killed passengers.  In Congress, there was the usual pointless finger-pointing; the states of Maryland and Virginia blamed each other and the DC metro authority.  But the real issue was simply: lack of funds to keep up with needed repairs.

The DC Metro was just a symbol of maintenance issues plaguing nearly every major transit

Subway Shutdown

Metro trains arrive in the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in Washington. The head of the rail system that serves the nation’s capital and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs says the system will shut down for a full day Wednesday after a fire near one of the system’s tunnels. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

system in the U.S., estimated to equal $86 billions in repair backlog, according to a recent report on National Public Radio.  The Chicago Transit Authority claims it faces a $13 billion backlog in repairs, even though it recently spend $5 billion in upgrades, while much of  San Francisco’s famed BART system is in “end-of-life” status.

In Milwaukee County, it’s time to replace many of the buses in our system.  Perhaps, too, we should be increasing the number of routes and bus frequency — while keeping fares from being increased — to encourage more use of public transit.

Transit is just one of the many infrastructure burdens facing our nations.  A 2013 report from Transportation for America said that one in nine bridges in the U.S. are structurally deficient. Here in Wisconsin, we’re finally nearing the end of the long repairs to the Hoan Bridge following a partial collapse in 2000.  Repairs too were needed after the 2013 Lee Frigo Bridge sag over Green Bay Harbor.  No one was injured, fortunately, in those incidents; yet, should we ever forget the 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis that killed 13 and injured 145 others?

There’s so much work to be done!  Here in Milwaukee, our county government is facing a


Milwaukee’s iconic Mitchell Park Domes need costly repair, or face demolition.

decision as to what to be done with the now-closed Mitchell Park Domes, our iconic geodesic structures that bring us warmth and greenery in the depths of our long Wisconsin winters.  It’s been estimated that the cost of repairing the existing domes would cost between $65 and $75 million.

The Public Policy Forum, a nonpartisan research group, found that the capital needs of Milwaukee County’s arts and cultural facilities and parks totaled $246 million over the next five years. The forum noted that, since 2001, tax dollars for county-owned cultural facilities have been cut by more than 40% in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Consider, too, the constant road repairs and upgrades that are needed.  Our extreme weather changes from hot summers to frigid winters reeks havoc on our streets and now as spring approaches we’re dodging gaping potholes on our city streets.  (How well I know, having just spent good money on front end repairs to my car!)

Yes, we have lots of work to do in our country.

Meanwhile, we still need to pay for a military and intelligence network to protect us, to keep a competent police force, to maintain our fire departments, to provide for those who are unable to provide for themselves, to ensure a clean environment, to pay the interest on our national debt, and on and on.

There’s no question that many of us can and should pay more in taxes.  It’s also true that the poorest among us must not be hit with hidden taxes or forced to reach into their meager pockets for increased taxes.

Sadly, given the current political climate, there’ll be few politicians who will say taxes should go up.

The need to change the public dialogue on taxes is critical.  Those of us who can pay more, should.  It’s all part of being part of our society.  Alas, in the words of John Donne, “No man is an island.”

Please, let’s continue this dialogue.  What do you think?  — Ken Germanson, March 19, 2016.

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.)

LABOR DAY 2015: Reflections

President Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act into law on July 5, 1935, with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins looking on.

President Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act into law on July 5, 1935, with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins looking on.

It’s with a somewhat heavy heart that we’ll be enjoying the camaraderie of our brother and sister union members at Milwaukee’s Laborfest on the lakefront this year.

As has been the case in recent Labor Day celebrations, it’s expected the marchers in the Annual Labor Day parade will be fewer in number and the crowd coming to Summerfest grounds afterwards may be somewhat reduced. That will be the disheartening reality of the current state of unionism in this once strong Union town.

The will be some hopeful signs, however, in the enthusiasm shown by the brothers and sisters in the 2015 marches.  What has been remarkable during this downturn in union membership is the increase in the determination and solidarity among those union members who still are active.  They will be joined by many who are not union members, including a large number of retired unionists or current workers in nonunion plants who once labored in union shops that closed up in the flight of industry from our city during the last 35 years.

The year 2015 marks the 80th Anniversary of the Wagner Act (or National Labor Relations Act – NLRA) that brought about the right for workers to organize and bargain collectively; it also required employers to bargain in “good faith” with the union.  It was an historic piece of legislation, often called “Labor’s Magna Charta,” and it brought about a sudden growth in unionism.  In Milwaukee, every major manufacturer – except one – became union shops.  Similar levels of union growth were duplicated in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.  Union strength grew, and few politicians could get elected without labor’s support.

Through the years, new anti-labor laws like the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin acts of 1947 and 1959 respectively diluted the Wagner Act.  Courts chipped away at the Wagner Act, as well, weakening enforcement by the NLRB, making it almost impossible to organize any employer who was determined to remain non-union.  Efforts to bring about positive  labor law reform got lip-service from friendly politicians, but little else.

Add into the mix the growing tendency of employers to pull out all stops to block unionism and to challenge the existence of what unions remained.  Furthermore, enemy politicians helped to fuel arguments that put unions into an unfavorable light.  Witness the lies heaped upon unionists in Wisconsin as they fought to resist Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union Act 10 in 2011: Walker portrayed teachers as overpaid and underworked and wrongly claimed the more than 100,000 demonstrators who filled Madison streets during the frigid winter of 2011 were “thugs and outsiders.”

As we watched the once-strong labor movement grow more powerless, we found it easy to become disheartened.

Yet, there are signs that there’s a light shining in this dark tunnel of working class despair.  The increased determination in the few unionists remaining may show that there are seeds for growth.  The efforts to organize fast food places and retail establishments show promise, even with slow progress.  There’s an openness among labor leaders – and just ordinary dues-payers – to exploring new ways to do things.

Labor, too, is finding new allies, such as the fledgling Wisconsin Jobs Now campaign that embraces dramatic ways to organize law-wage workers.  Success with such efforts, however, may require labor unions to search out new forms of structure, including finding the ways and means to provide representation for workers even where there is no formal labor contract.

President Obama has failed labor several times during his tenure; consider his lukewarm response to labor law reform and his decision not to show up to support Wisconsin workers in the 2011 uprising.  Yet, he’s been responsive in other ways that fail to get much press; his appointment of new members of the National Labor Relations Board has already paid off with a recent ruling that may take away the right of employers to use temporary employment services to avoid unionization.

Also, he has spoken out for increasing the minimum wage, but with Republican control of Congress, that doesn’t seem to be gaining much steam.

The reality is that workers can’t depend upon the politicians to bring about the changes that are needed to bring about living wages and safe and decent workplaces.  Working people must get together to organize to “force” change.  Even the Wagner Act wouldn’t have passed in 1935 without the many strikes and job actions that occurred in the early 1930s.

As we join our friends and allies on Monday at Laborfest, we hope our heavy hearts will be lifted as we see that there’s a new spirit of working class collectivism rising.  Let’s hope that’s the case.  Ken Germanson, Sept. 5,  2015


Sen. Johnson: Have you the courage?

An Open Letter to Sen. Ron Johnson:

Every so often a legislator gets a chance to take a courageous step forward.  Now is YOUR time to make that act of fortitude.

Please remove the shackles of conformity that have linked you to the current Republican Party’s view that it must scuttle President Obama’s nuclear arms agreement between our allies and Iran.

We know you may feel that your political future calls upon you to join in the cacophony of outlandish comments from many of your colleagues and claim that the agreement is a betrayal of Israel or a surrender similar to that occurring in Munich in 1938.  We believe that you as a successful businessman certainly know that it’s important to make decisions based upon facts and evidence, rather than upon wild rantings.

As a retired labor negotiator, I know that the “perfect deal” is never possible, but that a deal that offers both sides hope for a better future is good for both sides.  This deal provides just that.

The Iranian citizens, according to reports, are dancing in the streets knowing that crippling economic sanctions will be lifted; as a people, they are eager to embrace Western cultures.  Certainly, the U.S. business community may benefit in the long run by opening up new markets.  It’s possible that through such economic interchange that the Iranian aggressive nature will be blunted.

For the U.S. and its allies, it means greater assurances that Iranian nuclear arms development will not only be reversed, but held off for at least ten years; by then it’s highly possible that Iran’s desire to continue a costly nuclear arms program may be greatly weakened.

Of course, you must look at the negatives of the deal:  Will the International arms inspectors miss some secretive nuclear arms location?  Can we trust Iran?  The Obama Administration and our allies are convinced that these concerns can be met.   You’re right to study these questions.

I urge you to examine the terms closely and hope you will come to the same conclusion that I have:  on balance, the Iran deal offers a chance for longterm peace and for decreased chances of nuclear war.

My personal political hero is Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld who in 1892 pardoned the three remaining prisoners who were awaiting execution on framed-up charges of participating in the bombing deaths of eight persons in the Haymarket Event of May 4, 1886.  Even as a stanch pro-business governor, he acted to pardon the three “leftists” because he was convinced they were unfairly charged and convicted.  He acted, even though he was aware the action might cost him re-election.  It did.

I doubt your action in defying conventional Republican orthodoxy in approving the Iran deal will cost you re-election; polls show wide support for the deal.  Yet, I know the pressures from your Republican colleagues will be great to follow the party-line.

Please put aside any temptation to engage in political, divisive rhetoric; study the bill and we hope you’ll agree with us that “yes” is best and have the courage to say so to your constituents in Wisconsin.

Thank you.

Kenneth A. Germanson, Aug. 3, 2015

Wisconsinites need not be smug about racism in South

For years, northerners, such as those of us in Milwaukee, have always had a superior attitude about our racism when we think about places like South Carolina, where the confederate flag – and its symbols of slavery – for years flew proudly.

We have nothing to be smug about; racism still reigns in the State of Wisconsin.

Just a few examples from some recent personal experiences:

An African-American teacher who lives two blocks east of me in our once historically  white Milwaukee neighborhood  told me that she experienced the usual hateful racist artifacts being placed on her property after she moved in five years ago. It was a next door neighbor who was unmoved by her efforts to keep her lawn mowed and snow shoveled well above the typical standards of the neighborhood.  To be honest, her lawn is much neater than mine.  Finally, she called the police who set the man straight; to his credit, he backed off.

A friend told that he was called a “n—— lover” in an argument with a neighbor on the Northern Wisconsin lake where he and his wife had purchased an older home and were fixing it up. His sin, in the neighbor’s eyes, was that he took a nephew (an adopted nine-year-old Ethiopian boy) fishing.

While our politicians and public officials never use racist terms outwardly, there are still plenty of our neighbors in this state who do so regularly. Some will avoid openly racist terms, but soon their language will be populated with euphemisms that seek to hide their true racist feelings.

Obviously, there’s still a need to attack racism in our community. – Ken Germanson, July 21, 2015.

The fight for unions is everyone’s fight

It’s time to revisit Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.Niemoller

Niemoller (1892-1984) first made this statement in 1946 after he was freed from a Nazi prison where he had been held since 1937, and he repeated it in many versions since then, mainly to urge people to break out of their apathy and get involved when groups are being persecuted.

One thing is certain and that is that in the various versions trade unionists were often listed as groups being targeted for destruction. Niemoller at first supported Adolf Hitler’s NazI party, but soon left it when he realized its true purpose; in a sense, his famous quote became his own penance for his earlier actions.

It’s ironic that the Nazi (the National Socialist Workers Party) proclaimed to be a party for the workers and the downtrodden; in doing so, they fooled many into supporting their earlier goals. And yes, free trade unions were among the first to be destroyed, being outlawed in January, 1934, one year after the Nazis took control. In the place of the traditional unions, the Nazis established the German Labour Front in which all workers in larger workplaces were expected to join; while union membership was nominally voluntary, those who failed to join the state-sponsored unions were looked upon to be suspicious. The Labour Front’s main purpose was to serve the Fatherland, not to protect the rights of its worker members.

Many union supporters compared Scott Walker’s action in passing Act 10 with the actions of Hitler; Walker supporters roundly criticized such comparisons with the man responsible for butchering six million Jews and causing the carnage of World War II. Also, many rightwingers claimed Hitler favored unions, as shown by his establishment of the Labour Front. They were, of course, dead wrong; the Labour Front was a tool of the Nazi regime, not a free trade union capable of questioning actions of the Nazis.

Thus, the comparison of Walker’s actions with those of Adolf Hitler’s in killing the free trade union movement is chillingly accurate.   (Certainly, no one would claim Walker or others like him would exterminate millions as Hitler’s Nazis did.)

Today, trade unionists are being assaulted by a cohort of right-wing politicians (i.e. Scott Walker in Wisconsin) and their Big Business allies. Make no mistake about it: Walker’s key purpose in offering Act 10 (the law passed in 2011 to ban most collective bargaining rights for public workers) was not to save taxpayer dollars but to weaken, if not kill, an effective trade union movement in Wisconsin. His success in such anti-union legislation has made him a hero among big business and rightwingers alike.

Since less than 10% of workers today are in union jobs, there’s a tendency to read this and say, “so what?” It doesn’t matter to me.

As Pastor Niemoller’s words so eloquently tell us: it should matter to workers and to all persons who believe in democracy.

Labor unions in the United States are “free” organizations; outside of following a few procedural rules that require them to be democratically run, they are free to advocate and take actions, regardless what the government may like. If they don’t like an action of government, they are free to campaign against it.

Right now, the labor movement represents the ONLY relatively powerful institution blocking their way to turning our government over to the whims and ambitions of Big Business or the one percent. To weaken labor is to help lead the way to a government run by and for the privileged few. Can fascism be far behind?

Authoritarian regimes, like Stalin’s Russia, routinely ban free trade unions, mainly to weaken one of the few institutions capable of opposing their rule. Even in today’s Russia where trade unions enjoy greater freedoms than in the past Soviet Union times, President Vladimir Putin is beginning to crack down on some of those freedoms, precisely for the fear that they would oppose his increasingly dictatorial rule.

Yes, Labor unions remain a bulwark of democracy.