A group of men in Milwaukee protesting Francoist Spain, 1946 WHI 3202
Edmund Eisenscher's Milwaukee Union Photographs
The Eisenscher gallery showcases 133 photos taken by Edmund Eisenscher (1909-1995), photographer for the "Wisconsin CIO News." Today only about 11 percent of American workers belong to a union. But when Eisenscher was working, more than a third of working Americans were union members. Milwaukee was one of the nation's leading manufacturing centers and, after four decades of socialist government, one of its strongest union communities, too. Residents considered labor unions a basic part of the social fabric like schools and churches. Eisenscher's images document the role unions played in people's lives during this vanished era.
The Eisenscher Collection
His images range in time from 1938-1956, but the majority date from 1946-1948 when he was a photographer for "Wisconsin CIO News." The nation was experiencing sharp price increases at the time and workers' demands for raises to keep up with inflation met stiff opposition. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 outlawed or restricted many organized labor activities. On top of this, many labor unions also faced anti-communist persecution during the McCarthy Era.
Eisenscher's photographs document union life in Milwaukee during this tumultuous time. They are especially valuable because they depict more than just strikes and demonstrations. Instead, most of his images show union members and their families outside of work at recreation such as dances and bowling.
His focus on life outside the factory conveys a sense of the strength of unions and the central role they played in workers' lives. Dozens of images capture dances, picnics, weddings, bowling and other sports, and various social events. Eisenscher also took photos of the factory floor, strikes and union meetings, but the unique value of his work is its depiction of everyday life for working-class Milwaukee people during and after World War II.
Some of the topics that Eisenscher documented include a 1946 strike at Allis-Chalmers, demonstrations the same year of railroad car ferry workers for a 40-hour week, and the leftist People's Bookstore. As large numbers of African Americans migrated to Wisconsin after the war, the "CIO News" ran a series about black union leader Isaiah Pyant (pictured above). The online collection contains more than two dozen images documenting African-American participation in union activities during the years that many of the state's black families first arrived. The entire collection contains 891 prints and 939 negatives, from which 133 have been selected for this gallery.
The images published online derive from Eisenscher's original 2x3- and 4x5-inch, black-and-white negatives. These larger format negatives captured a high level of detail and were often greatly cropped to provide closeups for the CIO newspaper. Some later 4x5-inch negatives appear to be enlarged copy negatives that Eisenscher made himself.
Eisenscher's technique and subject matter both evolved over time. While early photos focus on an active and contentious period of labor history in Milwaukee, his later work shifts predominantly to Local #7 of the Amalgamated Lithographers of America, of which Eisenscher was a member.
Edmund Eisenscher (1909-1995)
Eisenscher was born in Krakow, Poland, and immigrated with his family to the United States in 1911. He moved to Milwaukee about 1936 after two of his siblings settled in Wisconsin. He began taking pictures about 1938, if not earlier, and worked at a variety of jobs during World War II.
Immediately after the war he worked for three years at Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company. During these years he contributed photos to the "Wisconsin CIO News," a labor union newsletter that had a widespread readership around the state. Most of the images in the collection date from this time when Eisenscher was working at Allis-Chalmers and publishing his photos in the CIO newsletter. Eisenscher later worked as a lithographer at the Continental Can Company in Milwaukee until the 1970s.
To Learn More
Eisenscher's original photographs are available in the Archives Reference Room at the Society's headquarters in Madison. The Society library microfilmed the "Wisconsin CIO News" and will send it anywhere in the nation through interlibrary loan (consult your local librarian).
For more on Eisenscher's life and times, see these two books from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press:
- Blue Jenkins: Working for Workers by Julia Pferdehirt tells young readers the story of an African-American union leader who led battles against discrimination in work, housing and economic opportunity in Racine during the years Eisenscher was taking his photos.
- A City at War: Milwaukee Labor During World War II by Richard Pifer is a scholarly examination of how workers in Wisconsin's largest city responded to the war.
Two other titles provide additional context for Eisenscher's photographs:
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