In the 19th century as our society industrialized, large business systems became the defining feature of American wealth creation. By 1900, corporations made two-thirds of all manufactured products. With economies of scale predominant, American workers had to organize, because as individuals, they were at a disadvantage in our system of capitalism.
One early effort was the National Labor Union. The NLU advocated return to an older, more “virtuous” time, before workers were paid low wages for long hours under intensive and often unsafe factory conditions. This aspiration to thwart the industrialization process proved an important lesson for labor. We Americans look forward to progress, and any labor reform advocacy would have to do the same.
The depression of 1873 wiped out the NLU and provided another important lesson for workers: Labor is weakest during an economic downturn.
It was Samuel Gompers’ and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) that led workers in the direction of accepting capitalism and the wage system. Unions would bargain with company bosses for higher wages, fewer hours, improved safety and more benefits. And when such progress was made, it was because labor began to organize on a scale comparable to business.
Yet social divisions and our cultural preference to view ourselves as individuals continued to thwart progress for many workers. The AFL didn’t include unskilled industrial workers, blacks or women. Potential retaliation by management also was a constant fear that labor organization faced. So in 1900, union membership comprised less than 10 percent of our industrial work force.
When the Roaring 1920s began, there were almost 5 million union members. To counter this growing strength, the National Association of Manufacturers and Chamber of Commerce launched a new scientific management. This “American Plan” welfare capitalism, controlled by the corporations, diminished union membership to less than 3.5 million by 1929.
Such company unions were called “Kiss-Me Clubs,” because they were so lacking in power. They left a majority of workers living below accepted minimum health and decency standards.
The American Plan, along with prosperity itself, was wiped out by the Great Depression. But President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal ushered in a new dawn for labor history. Workers had a political leader dedicated to redressing social failures that result from capitalist market forces. The National Labor Relations Act facilitated unionization and collective bargaining.
Wisconsin’s industrial workers became actively engaged. We distributed our national wealth evenly enough to preserve capitalism despite the Great Depression.
It was a unionized nation that defeated fascism in World War II. In turn, the American dream of fair compensation for hard work would be achieved.
A golden age of unionized progress and our most equitable wealth distribution came about in the 1950s.
Yet even then, Wisconsin produced U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy, who led a campaign against our unions and helped establish fear in the population that unions were directed by international communism. “Stalin Over Wisconsin” by Stephen Meyer informatively covers one episode of this story.
McCarthy used “indiscriminate, often unfounded, accusations, sensationalism, inquisitorial investigative methods” (Webster’s Collegiate dictionary’s definition of his tactics) in his anti-union obsession. He contributed mightily to an American cultural attitude that would become unreceptive to workers’ collective rights.
Yet, in 1959, at perhaps the zenith of American unions’ strength, Wisconsin was the first state to award collective bargaining rights to public employees. The Wisconsin Education Association Council’s (WEAC) own history acknowledges this right may have been won accidentally.
Conservative lawmakers opposed to the bill adding teachers’ right to organize, trying to convince moderates to vote against it. To conservatives’ surprise, it passed, without the support, or perhaps even notice, of the WEA.
Public employees’ compensation and benefits steadily improved over the next half-century.
There were bumps in the road. In 1974, the Hortonville School Board fired all 84 of its teachers in a particularly disruptive event that, just like our circumstances today, garnered national attention.
In the 1990s, Wisconsin’s Department of Employment relations and the State Employers Union (WSEU) instituted consensus bargaining. This cooperative approach
created a positive environment for labor-management relations.
This could have been the avenue for Gov. Scott Walker to address this state’s budget shortfall. Instead, he has chosen President Ronald Reagan’s busting of the Professional Air-Traffic Controllers Association in 1981.
The jury is still out as to whether the governor has chosen his role model wisely.
Keith Knutson is a local history professor.