Wisconsin has a rich history of leading the nation in offering collective bargaining rights for workers, both private and public, a UW-Madison expert says.

Dennis Dresang, professor emeritus of public affairs and political science, cautions that Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to slash the authority of public employee unions could not only jeopardize more than 30 years of labor peace but also could revert to the helter-skelter system of the past for compensating workers.

“I think at a minimum, we’re going to have a very inefficient collective bargaining process. The wider the scope of bargaining, the more things you put on the table, the more complete package you can get in a negotiation round,” Dresang said. “And I think there is some risk of labor unrest. What he’s dealing with here is a very aggressive and hostile action towards public employees.”

Many firsts

Wisconsin was the first state to let public employees organize and bargain collectively, Dresang said. It was also first to grant workers compensation and unemployment compensation.

Labor unions in Wisconsin started as early as 1865, when the Molders Union Local 125 was formed in Milwaukee. Worker strikes date back even further, to a ship carpenters walkout in Milwaukee in 1848.

But in the first five days of May 1886, a strike led to Wisconsin’s worst labor violence. As part of a nationwide push for an eight-hour work day, Milwaukee workers shut down most of the city’s factories. As several thousand marched toward Bay View Rolling Mills, Milwaukee’s largest employer at the time, the Wisconsin State Militia opened fire, killing seven people. It was the day after the riot in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, where eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians died.

Among other milestones:

• In 1893, the state Federation of Labor, which later became the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, was founded.

• In 1911, Wisconsin adopted the first workers compensation law in the U.S.

• In 1932, Wisconsin was the first state with an unemployment compensation law.

AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, got its start in Madison in 1932 when a small group of white-collar, professional, state employees held a meeting “to promote, defend and enhance the civil service system,” according to the national organization’s website.

During the 1930s and 1940s, public employees in small Wisconsin communities, “largely Republican,” came together and petitioned their town and village boards, “saying, ‘Give us a raise,’” said Kenneth Germanson, former president of the Wisconsin Labor History Society.

Bargaining evolves

In 1959, the Legislature passed the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act, which made Wisconsin the first state to give local government workers and teachers collective bargaining rights. Personnel managers led the way, seeking better relationships with workers, Dresang said.

The law was strengthened in 1961 and 1963 and in the mid-1960s, the first “bona fide” labor contracts for public employees were signed, Germanson said.

State employees did not win similar rights until the 1970s, said Dresang.

He said many public employee groups were only allowed to bargain on issues other than wages for a long time; that’s still the case for federal employees.

In Wisconsin, some public employee unions could only bargain wages, so they asked the Legislature for benefits, Dresang said. “It was a fragmented and very inefficient way. You never really get a picture of, ‘How much are we paying for compensation?’ ” he said.

And there were strikes. In the 1970s, Madison teachers, UW-Madison teaching assistants and the Wisconsin State Employees Union were among those staging walkouts. “If you don’t have meaningful collective bargaining ... the only thing employees have in this process is their labor,” Dresang said.

If Walker’s plan passes, public employee strikes will again be “a very serious risk,” he said.

 

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