Protests and progressive politics go hand-in-hand in Wisconsin dating back to the nineteenth century when workers pushed for legislation that gave laborers protections long before unions were chartered in the state.
According to an article on the birth of the labor movement by the Wisconsin Historical Society, workers in the badger state and reformers made significant contributions to the history of labor in the United States, helping to enact legislation such as workers compensation and unemployment insurance that served as models for similar laws in other states.
The evolution of Wisconsin’s economy, like that of the rest of the nation according to the article, contributed to the rise of organized labor in the 19th century.
The industrialization of agriculture, as well as the development of the mining and lumbering industries, coupled with the growth of manufacturing changed the nature of work in Wisconsin. Workers began to view themselves as a distinct group within society, and unions became a means for working people to participate in politics and society.
Thus they fought long and hard in those formative years to repel legislative (and corporate) efforts to deny workers’ protection against abuse in the work place and ushered in unions as a powerful force against those in business and government who did not want them to participate as fully in those aforementioned areas of politics and society.
Many of the people filling the state Senate chambers today are individuals who voted for Governor Scott Walker in the election this past November.
Walker’s election mantra was to cut taxes and attract more businesses to the state. This mantra resonated with many as the state’s multi-million dollar debt continued to mount.
However, these Walker supporters and state residents in general had no idea that the new governor’s budget plan to deal with the deficit would be used as a tool to dismantle collective bargaining, the heart and soul of unions past and present.
Many of you—our readers—remember the value of collective bargaining when blatant racism often plagued employment upward mobility and when qualified workers were subsequently denied access to increased wage opportunities.
Likewise, Milwaukee’s Black middle class grew stronger on the wings of the unions and collective bargaining, which resulted in the rapid growth of Black middle class families, many who continue to pay employment taxes, purchase homes and educate their children who continued the upward trajectory for themselves and their heirs.
Unions not only contributed to a strong Black middle class, it contributed to the fiscal, social, educational, spiritual and civic growth of the city of Milwaukee.
The destruction of the growth paradigm in Milwaukee’s Black community is unequivocally tied to the loss of industry and unions current struggle for survival as both entities try to bridge the employment chasm that prevents all of us from traveling successfully along the road of economic recovery.
The state workers who have been protesting Walker’s attempt to destroy unions must return to work. Our elected Democratic officials who have been “AWOL” in order to prevent state Senate Republicans from taking up the governor’s budget recovery must represent us; while the governor must end his effort to destroy collective bargaining, thus destroying the union movement.
Those who support the union movement and the right to a fair wage and decent working conditions must urge the governor not to throw the baby out with the bathwater in dealing with the state’s budget crisis.
The unions have agreed to necessary concessions that will refine the tax cut agenda. They are to be commended. Democracy, after all, requires give and take.
But the autocratic posture by the governor and the majority of the state Senate will not win friends nor ultimately support long-term recovery.
It’s time to negotiate, to bend and respect each other’s respective roles. Drawing a line in the sand will not resolve the situation. We expect the people’s business to be the mantra of the day.