Unions and Labor History

What is a union?

Unions have a long history but for some reason many people don’t know much about them…that probably has something to do with the fact that unions take power from where it is concentrated and redistribute it among ordinary people. People who already have a lot of power are therefore not too keen on unions.

In the early 1900s some companies were so powerful that they owned entire towns; they owned the newspaper, the general store, everything in the towns where their workers lived. They were able to set prices and their employees had the choice of working in squalid conditions for however long the boss said, or starving. In the West Virginia Coal Wars the owners of the coal mines hired private militias to break the workers’ strike. Without the labor movement, none of this would have ever changed. The working class was only able to gain the dignity they deserved after they came together and stood up for themselves. But you don’t have to work in a coal mine to need a union. In every place where people work side by side, things can be improved through communication and cooperation. 

A union can be boiled down to these three basic elements: a strong network of communication between the workers, a set of democratic rules and procedures, and a pool of resources that are made possible by the payment of union dues. If you have these three things, you have a union. A union exists wherever a group of workers act as one, in unity. 

So why should a teacher join the Machinists Union? It might seem strange for an educator to join an organization called the Machinists Union. When it was founded way back in 1888 it was exclusively for people who worked with machines. But a lot of time has passed and the labor movement has evolved. Now it is common for large unions like the International Association of Machinists to represent workers in many different industries and professions. The IAM represents librarians, lobster fishermen, workers at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and so on. The membership is a diverse cross-section of the American workforce. Diversity strengthens the union; IAM members come from a variety of industries and this gives it economic stability.  Another strength is the size of its membership — approximately 400,000 across North America. Many people working together in unity can achieve great things. 

Key Terms:

Collectivism exists wherever people realize that they have something in common, a common goal or interest. Collectivism prioritizes cohesion between individuals. It comes from an understanding that each individual can be empowered by a collective of individuals who have a shared value. Collectivism is an appreciation of community and the people who make it. It is mutual aid, mutual benefit, friendship and solidarity. — “An injury to one is an injury to all!” — But also in the positive: when the community is healthy and happy, so is each individual. 

Collective Action. When people work together, they’re acting collectively. Whether building a house or taking to the streets in protest, people working in cooperation are powerful. They make things happen. Some things will never get done unless a group of people come together and take collective action. Improving your workplace is one such thing. Even if an issue is widespread and affects many of your coworkers, individually going in to talk to your boss will very likely leave the problem unsolved. You need to show them that the issue is widespread; you can do that with collective action like letter-writing, making a petition or forming a union. 

Collective Bargaining is a form of collective action and it is one of the most important tools for establishing workplace democracy. When workers communicate with one another and realize the value of mutual aid, they put their power together; collective bargaining becomes possible. Unions are built on the principle of collective bargaining. The goal is to democratically create a contract for the employees and the employer. This way the employer can’t unilaterally change policies. They must bargain with their workers because the contract is a legally binding agreement. 

After a union is certified at a workplace, a bargaining survey is sent out to every worker. The purpose of this is to include the priorities of the whole workforce at the bargaining table, and to make sure that the final contract reflects the collective’s needs and desires. The more often an issue is mentioned by workers in the survey, the higher it is prioritized by the union in negotiations with the employer. This way, decisions are made by the collective instead of by one person or a small group of people who may or may not fully understand the effects of their decisions. Workers know best what will improve the workplace because we are the ones who actually do the work. 

Milwaukee Labor History

Milwaukee has a rich and important history as one of the home bases of the Labor Movement. The earliest labor unions in Milwaukee were in the mid-1800s, with bricklayers organizing in 1847 and carpenters in 1848. Many of the earliest professions to unionize were manufacturing, textile, tannery, and other factory work that were heavily represented in Milwaukee. Many workers were immigrants from around the world who faced discrimination, poverty wages, and dangerous conditions and needed to organize to change that.

Milwaukee was and is a famous turning point for the fight for the 8 hour work day. Throughout the 1800s, it was common for factory workers to have 12 hour work days 6 days a week. Milwaukee became a stronghold of workers fighting for an 8 hour work day. In fact, worker organizers met at Puddler’s Tavern in Bay View to plan the 8 hour work day campaign, and the bar is still open. Inside, you can see the signs representing those workers’ demands – 8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for what we will.

On May Day, 1886, Milwaukee had a city-wide strike in support of the 8 hour work day. After five days, only one factory remained open – the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View. Striking workers arrived at the factory to encourage the Bay View workers to go on strike. In response, Wisconsin’s Governor Jeremiah Rusk sent out the National Guard, who shot at the protesting workers and killed 5 people. Despite this tragedy and setback, it set the stage for a political revolution where Milwaukeeans ushered in their three socialist mayors and Wisconsinites led the progressive movement. These movements led to reforms we still benefit from today, from Social Security to workmen’s compensation to unemployment benefits.

Despite the fact that the earliest Milwaukee labor organizers were often immigrants from places like Poland and Germany and faced ethnic discrimination in the United States, Milwaukee’s early labor history was not always on the right side of the fight for racial justice. When the majority-Polish workforce at Pfister & Vogel went on strike, the company hired workers from Mexico to break the strike starting in 1920. Despite these Mexican workers – often called Los Primeros in Milwaukee – not knowing they were hired to be scabs, Polish and other white ethnic workers threatened these Mexican workers when they arrived in Milwaukee via train. Unsurprisingly, this division playing on workers’ racial bigotry was not good for either the white or nonwhite worker conditions.

The workplace conditions that unions built, though, is what made Milwaukee a destination for people from around the country and world. When Black workers arrived in Milwaukee during the Great Migration to work unionized, living wage jobs at factories like AO Smith, Milwaukee had the 2nd highest average wage for African Americans of any American city (Detroit was number 1). Unfortunately, the hostile politics towards unions in the 1980s and job losses in Milwaukee led to these union jobs disappearing, coinciding with the increasing rates of poverty among Black & Latinx workers in particular.

Today, unions in Milwaukee know the best way to tackle socioeconomic disparities and racial disparities is by organizing together. Unions like MTEA have stood side by side with organizations like Voces de la Frontera as they work together to address educational disparities, socioeconomic disparities, and racial inequity. The movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage in Milwaukee, with support from unions like SEIU, has centered on fast food workers who are disproportionately Black & Latinx. Nationally, Teamsters participated in a Strike for Black Lives after George Floyd was murdered.

Fundamentally, unions are about democratizing the workplace. To have a fair and democratic workplace, you must have an equitable workplace that addresses all forms of oppression – whether it’s racism, ableism, classism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, or other lines of division. Learning from the successes and failures of Milwaukee’s rich labor history, we can ensure the Labor Movement is always a vehicle for justice.