Maintenance Outages: our website is experiencing some issues with pages loading as we undergo maintenance, please check back soon

Labor movement in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Early Labor Movement in Wisconsin

Labor movement in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society


Bay View Rolling Mill, ca. 1880 (WHI-7015)


Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


The evolution of Wisconsin's economy contributed to the rise of organized labor in the 19th century. The development of the mining and lumbering industries, coupled with the growth of manufacturing in cities, changed the nature of work in Wisconsin. By the end of the century, workers saw themselves as a distinct group and viewed unions as a way for them to participate in politics and society on an equal footing with their employers.


Wisconsin's first labor unions were formed in Milwaukee in the mid-19th century. The bricklayers organized in 1847 and the carpenters in 1848. These workers hoped to improve their economic status and working conditions through collective action. 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. The Knights quickly grew to be the largest union in the nation.

Early Labor Actions

The Ship Carpenters and Caulkers Association called the first successful strike in 1848. Strikes remained fairly infrequent and small-scale in Wisconsin until the later part of the 19th century when labor action grew all over the United States.

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 hired for the first time 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.

Civil War Era

Overall, Wisconsin workers fared comparatively well during the Civil War years as the local economy expanded. The need for manufactured goods created a need for workers, giving unions leverage in industries tied to the war economy. But as the war came to an end, demand and prices both 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.

Eight-Hour Day

During the 1870s, the demand to reduce to work day from 10 or 12 to eight hours intensified across the nation. Eight-hour day marches and strikes were strongest in industrial cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. 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 employers to adopt a standard eight-hour day culminated on May 1st, 1886, when all workers not yet on the system were asked to stop work until their employers met the demand. 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 trying to get the workers still inside the huge factory to come out was attacked by troops called out by Governor Jeremiah Rusk. Five unarmed 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. Governor Rusk became celebrated as a national hero, assumed to have saved Milwaukee from anarchy.

Labor and Progressive Reforms

As the 19th century ended, Wisconsin labor found its political outlet in a new movement led by Milwaukee socialist Victor Berger. During the first decade of the 20th century, Robert La Follette's Progressive movement supported some of the same reforms. At the time, accidents killed or maimed thousands of Wisconsin citizens every year. In 1911, the first Workmens' Compensation law was passed, 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. In 1937, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Act added critical state support to the right of workers to organize.

Wisconsin Labor and the Nation

Wisconsin's working people generally pursued a somewhat independent path within the national labor movement. Instead of organizing confrontations such as strikes and boycotts, as unions in other states did, they pushed aggressively for state legislation. 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.

Wisconsin's workers and reformers nevertheless made significant contributions to the history of labor in the United States. Wisconsin's workers' compensation and unemployment insurance laws served as models for similar legislation 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.

Learn More

See more images, essays, newspapers and records about the labor movement in Wisconsin.

Explore more than 1,600 people, places and events in Wisconsin history.

[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)]