Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Birth of the Labor Movement

How Wisconsin Created the Workday

The Birth of the Labor Movement | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeEngraved portrait of Jeremiah Rusk, governor of Wisconsin and the first U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Jeremiah Rusk, 1862

Engraved portrait of Jeremiah Rusk, governor of Wisconsin and the first U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. View the original source document: WHI 56244

Wisconsin's first unions were formed in Milwaukee. The bricklayers union was founded in 1847, and the carpenters union in 1848. Other early unions developed in transportation, clothing and printing trades. Shoemakers founded the Knights of St. Crispin in 1867, Wisconsin's first national trade union. It soon became the nation's largest union.

The Eight Hour Day

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. The group began a two-year campaign on May 1st, 1886 to urge all employers to adopt a standard eight-hour day. All workers without eight hour workdays went on strike.

Eight hour day marches and strikes were strongest in industrial cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee. Within a week, striking workers shut down all Milwaukee's industrial plants except the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View. On May 5, a crowd of demonstrators was attacked by troops sent by Governor Jeremiah Rusk. Five people were killed and four wounded. The incident slowed the momentum of the movement. Governor Rusk believed he had saved Milwaukee from anarchy, and became a national hero.

Onward

EnlargePortrait of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., during his tenure as U.S. senator from Wisconsin.

Fighting Bob La Follette

Portrait of Robert M. La Follette Sr., during his tenure as U.S. senator from Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 10650

In the 20th century, Wisconsin's labor movement found an outlet in the new Socialist movement built by Milwaukee's Victor Berger and Robert La Follette's Progressive movement. After World War I, labor unions began to agitate for unemployment compensation, which finally passed in 1932. In 1937, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Act granted state support for the right of workers to organize.

Learn More

[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)]