The Birth of the Labor Movement

Wisconsin's workers and reformers made significant contributions to the history of labor in the United States, helping to enact legislation such as workers' compensation and unemployment insurance that served as models for similar laws in other states. The study of labor history itself also began in Wisconsin when University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons set out to document the history of work and labor in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Commons and his associates also joined labor leaders, the business community, and politicians to bring about some of Wisconsin's groundbreaking social policies.

The evolution of Wisconsin's economy, like that of the rest of the nation, contributed to the rise of organized labor in the nineteenth century. The industrialization of agriculture, as well as the development of the mining and lumbering industries, coupled with the growth of manufacturing changed the nature of work in Wisconsin. Workers began to view themselves as a distinct group within society, and unions became a means for working people to participate in politics and society.

Wisconsin's working people generally pursued a somewhat independent path within the national labor movement, pushing aggressively for state legislation rather than coercion through economic actions such as strikes and boycotts. The Wisconsin movement also organized workers by industry, without regard for their particular skills. This differed from the national movement's attempts to unionize workers by skill, which often left less-skilled workers without representation. Additionally, while many national labor unions counseled political nonpartisanship, Wisconsin labor formed a close alliance with the Socialist Party and its humanitarian ideals.

Wisconsin's first unions were formed in Milwaukee, the bricklayers in 1847 and the carpenters in 1848. Building trades were essential to the expansion of the city because the construction of housing, docks, warehouses, and shops depended upon workers in the building trades. Other early unions developed in trades connected to transportation, clothing, and printing. Shoemakers founded the Knights of St. Crispin in 1867, Wisconsin's first national trade union organization, which quickly grew to be the largest union in the nation. The Ship Carpenters and Caulkers Association called the first successful strike in 1848, though strikes would remain fairly infrequent and relatively small-scale until the later part of the century.

These early strikes were over issues such as low wages, the withholding of pay or irregular payment, and the hiring of unskilled labor to manage new technology. Employers used women, African Americans, and immigrants as cheap sources of labor, successfully manipulating the prejudices of white male workers. In 1863, for example, Milwaukee Typographical Union Number 23 went on strike when women were first 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 than their male predecessors had received. Workers, male and female, both lost.

Overall, Wisconsin workers fared comparatively well during the Civil War years, gaining leverage in industries tied to the war economy. As the war came to an end though, prices fell drastically and workers faced renewed challenges to their wages and benefits. Wisconsin workers began to form larger labor associations with national ties and more active political engagement.

As talk of reducing daily work to eight hours intensified across the nation in the 1880s, workers in Milwaukee formed the Milwaukee Labor Reform Association (later the Eight-Hour League) to agitate for the eight-hour day that we now take for granted. Milwaukee workers mounted extensive efforts around this issue, especially among the more militant members of the Knights of Labor under Robert Schilling. A two-year campaign to urge all employers to adopt a standard eight-hour day culminated on May 1st, 1886, when all workers not yet on the system were to cease work until their employers met the demand. Eight-hour day marches and strikes were strongest in industrial cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Striking workers shut down industrial plants in Milwaukee during the first five days of May, 1886, except for one: the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View. On May 5, a crowd of demonstrators who had sought to call out the workers still inside the huge Bay View 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, the shots fired dampened momentum for the movement and Governor Rusk became celebrated as a national hero, assumed to have saved Milwaukee from anarchy.

As the nineteenth century ended, Wisconsin labor found its political outlet in a new socialist movement built by Milwaukee's Victor Berger and, during the first decade of the 20th century, in the support of Robert La Follette's Progressive movement. Factories were dangerous places for workers, and accidents killed or maimed thousands of Wisconsin citizens every year. In 1911, the legislature passed one of the nation's first Workmens' Compensation laws, requiring employers to provide medical attention and compensation for loss of life and limb. After World War I, labor unions began to agitate for unemployment compensation, which finally passed in 1932, and in 1937, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Act added critical state support to the right of workers to organize.

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 3 and 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Holter, Darryl. Workers and Unions in Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1999); Gara, Larry. A Short History of Wisconsin. (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1962)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A tariff advocate seeks worker support, 1880A tariff advocate seeks worker support, 1880
Link to article: Milwaukee's mayor looks back on the Bay View Riot of 1886Milwaukee's mayor looks back on the Bay View Riot of 1886
Link to article: An overview of Polish immigration through 1896An overview of Polish immigration through 1896
Link to article: A Milwaukee worker recalls the labor movement's early years.A Milwaukee worker recalls the labor movement's early years.
Link to article: The Sheboygan Press covers the strike in Kohler, 1934The Sheboygan Press covers the strike in Kohler, 1934
Link to article: Woodworkers strike turns violent in Oshkosh, 1898Woodworkers strike turns violent in Oshkosh, 1898
Link to article: Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk (1830-1893)Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk (1830-1893)
Link to book: Milwaukee trade unions organize to lobby for workers' rightsMilwaukee trade unions organize to lobby for workers' rights
Link to book: A Labor Day souvenir from the 1900 celebrationA Labor Day souvenir from the 1900 celebration
Link to book: Kohler workers strike for Union recognitionKohler workers strike for Union recognition
Link to book: The National Labor Relations Board tries to settle the Kohler strike, 1934The National Labor Relations Board tries to settle the Kohler strike, 1934
Link to book: The many products of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, 1948The many products of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, 1948
Link to images: Pictures of strikes and lockouts, 1886-1970Pictures of strikes and lockouts, 1886-1970
Link to images: Photographs of the Bay View Rolling MillsPhotographs of the Bay View Rolling Mills
Link to images: Photographs of post-war Milwaukee labor activitiesPhotographs of post-war Milwaukee labor activities
Link to manuscript: Working women describe their daily lives, 1914Working women describe their daily lives, 1914
Link to manuscript: A Progressive Era commission investigates vice, 1914A Progressive Era commission investigates vice, 1914
Link to manuscript: A Milwaukee brothel's account book, ca. 1910A Milwaukee brothel's account book, ca. 1910
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