Bryant Stratton College
December 17, 2012
“The Public Employee Union is organized to improve Public Service. Advance and improve the interests of its members in the matter of their wages, hours, working conditions, and general welfare”. (Clark, 1968-present)
Today, the United States is the richest country on earth. By most standards, U.S. earnings permit the vast majority of us to enjoy the highest standards of living. Most families have cars, sometimes two or three, televisions, refrigerators and their children have access to boom boxes, CDs, computers and cell phones. How did it happen that Wisconsin workers in May two thousand ten earned an average of nineteen dollars and seventeen cents an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics? The collective actions of workers that are usually through their unions have forced employers to pay fair wages. This factor tells us how workers were able get a fairer share of the nation’s wealth. Early on, workers learned they could not rely upon employers to pay them fairly. The prominent philosophy among the politicians and newspaper editors of the day was that workers were “property,” that is, they were resources for an employer to use to produce a profit.
The Early Labor Times As early as eighteen-five, shoemakers, formed a union in New York, but with no laws to protect them, such unions were short-lived. In eighteen-six, for instance, shoemakers in Philadelphia were forced to disband after being charged with conspiracy for organizing in an attempt to get higher wages, causing “injury” to their employer. For the next fifty years, any efforts at organizing largely faced such adverse decisions in the courts, making it impossible for unions to be developed, or to last very long. Sometimes, a strike action or union collective action brought victories, but once it was over, the union usually went out of business, and the employers soon were in control again. Workers largely were at the mercy of their employers. Workers in Wisconsin were to play an important role in the growth of unions and in the improvement of working conditions and wages. (Cupery, 1981)
In eighteen fifty nine, the first national union that was to survive was formed among foundry workers. The National Molders Union was founded, and Molders locals were formed in Milwaukee as early as eighteen sixty three. In eighteen sixty seven, the Knights of St. Crispin was founded in Milwaukee among shoe industry workers and soon was to become the largest national union of its day with seventy thousand members. The union died after the Panic of eighteen seventy three devastated the economy. St. Crispin, by the way, was a third century martyr who was the patron saint of shoemakers. (Cupery, 1981)
In Milwaukee, the eight-hour day resulted in the City’s Common Council declaring the 8-hour day law in March of eighteen eighty three for municipal employees. On May 1, eighteen eighty six, eight-hour day marches and strikes began all over the nation, but were strongest in industrial cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee. Tragedy struck after a confrontation at the vast McCormick Harvester plant in Chicago on May third in which police fired into a crowd of strikers killing four. The next night a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest the killings. But when it started to end, a bomb was thrown by an unknown person killing eight persons, including several police.
The following day, in Milwaukee, some fifteen hundred workers, mainly from the city’s Polish South Side, marched on the Bay View Rolling Mills plant at the Lakefront, urging support...