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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Striking Out

Our state's current dispute over public sector labor unions is only the most recent controversy in a series stretching back more than 150 years. The Milwaukee Ship Carpenters and Caulkers Association called one of Wisconsin's first successful strikes in 1848. Most early labor conflicts were over issues such as low wages, the withholding of pay, and hiring unskilled labor to replace craftsmen.

In 1863, for example, Milwaukee printers went on strike when women were hired as compositors at the Milwaukee Sentinel. The strike was unsuccessful and the women kept their jobs, though at wages only slightly more than half what their male predecessors had received. Workers, male and female, both lost.

During the 1880s, as talk of reducing the length of the workday intensified across the nation, workers in Milwaukee formed the Milwaukee Labor Reform Association to agitate for the eight-hour day. A two-year campaign to get employers to adopt a standard eight-hour day culminated on May 1st, 1886, when all workers not yet on the system were urged to cease work until their employers agreed.

Over the next five days, striking workers shut down industrial plants in Milwaukee with one exception -- the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View. On May 5th, a crowd of demonstrators outside the factory was attacked by troops called out by Governor Jeremiah Rusk. Five people were killed and four wounded.

While the massacre at Bay View did not end the agitation, it dampened momentum toward the eight-hour day. It also enabled the press to cast Governor Rusk as a national hero who had saved Milwaukee from anarchy.

Such simplistic caricatures often follow emotionally charged events. At times like this, it's helpful to remember that there are always more than two sides to any issue, even those that seem to quickly fall into "good guys vs. bad guys." Most policy questions are not two-sided but are irregular polyhedrons, and they change shape like amoebas as they unfold over time.

You can view more photos of historic Wisconsin labor actions at Wisconsin Historical Images.

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 23, 2011

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