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


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.

Michigan’s lesson for Wisconsin unionists

Make no mistake about it:  We in Wisconsin have plenty to learn from Michigan’s action this week in passing the Right-to-Work (for less) law.

Talk about stealth legislation, this is it.  Not only did the heavily Republican legislature ram the antiunion law through both the Senate and House without a public hearing and with no floor debate, but they even tried to do it hidden from the general public.  It took a court order to require them to open the chambers up, but the public’s presence did little to slow down the ramrod job the legislature did on the Wolverine State’s working people.

Note to Wisconsinites:  Remember how the Legislature’s Finance Committee in March 2011 passed Act 10 without proper notice, as the Republicans voted continuing to ignore Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca’s demand to speak.  And in a vote that lasted no more than 18 seconds, the law taking away most collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin’s public employees was passed.

In Michigan, this “Right-to-Work legislation had laid hidden in the woods during the entire legislative session, until December.  Earlier, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder had said it wasn’t on his agenda, which reassured many Michigan labor leaders into thinking that the GOP-controlled legislature would not touch such a change in traditionally heavy prolabor state. Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville previously opposed “right to work.”

Then, come the special session of a lame-duck legislature and both men suddenly are supporting it.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, who with the Republican-controlled legislature slammed through Act 10, has also been quoted as saying “right-to-work” was not on his agenda, nor did Republican leadership hint it was in the offing.  Maybe, just maybe, many laborites began thinking, they just don’t want the hassle of demonstrations similar to 2011, and there’d be no such law offered by Republicans.

Let the Michigan experience be a warning: You can’t trust these guys.

Already we know several legislators are circulating a “right-to-work” law in Wisconsin.  What happened in Michigan could happen in Wisconsin! — Ken Germanson, Dec. 7, 2012.