National History Day: Great way to involve students in labor history

By Carmen Clark

Back in the day, there was Science Fair.  High school and maybe middle school students were encouraged to ask a question, develop an experiment, make an exhibit about their project and compete locally and nationally.

Meanwhile, back in that same day,  history became the grand story of American lore, from Columbus sailing the ocean blue through Indian hospitality to deserving Pilgrims.  Kids nhd-2015-winnerrecited the Gettysburg Address and skimmed over the 20th Century’s valiant Yankee troops and iconic presidents.

High school history courses have gotten better and today there is also National History Day, a vital counterpart to science fair.

Thanks to History Professor David Van Tassell of Case Western Reserve, National History Day came into being in 1974 with 129 Cleveland-area students.  It has mushroomed ever since, to involve more than a half-million 6th-12th graders throughout the USA. They develop individual or group history projects in one of five categories-Documentary video, Exhibit, Paper, Performance or Website. Students in early spring and winning projects move from their schools to regional, state and National Contest in June.  (Photo above right shows one of the many projects in a past contest celebrating Cesar Chavez.)

National History Day aims to give students opportunities to learn about history and develop research, thinking and communication skills, enhancing teaching of history in the process.  Each year, the contest features a particular theme.  This year’s is “Taking a Stand in History.”  Read here how to adapt this theme to a potential NHD project.

The Wisconsin Labor History Society and its friends worked hard for legislative approval of labor history in the schools as part of core curriculum standards.  Now we need it implemented against the pushback of school administrators who gleefully said goodbye to teachers unions and activists likely to know the most and care the most about labor history.

Through the enthusiasm of several board members, including Jim Reiland and Laurie Wermter, WLHS began to offer cash prizes for superior NHD projects involving labor history.  WLHS members have gotten involved in judging winning projects for our cash projects.  Wisconsin History Day has continued to grow and WLHS now awards up to $1,000 in cash prizes each year at regional and state levels to deserving projects in junior and senior competitions.

Because labor history is generally not included in textbooks and standard curriculum, and because teachers are not always comfortable teaching labor history through lack of knowledge or lack of support, it is vital that the labor movement, labor historians, and the WLHS expand our involvement in NHD and support for the project.  We need resources for students in starting quality projects in labor history, since many students have little idea of what labor history is even about, let alone the milestones in labor struggles, the role of unions in American history and social change, or lessons to learn from labor history or the history of working people for today’s challenges.

We need your support and participation to be a resource in getting students started with their projects and helping them identify what and how to develop their research, judging at regional and state levels, and helping raise matching prize money from local unions, labor councils, and other friends of labor, and in coordinating our efforts and our assistance to the excellent state NHD administrators in Madison.  We need teachers to reach out to teachers statewide, we need creative new ways to educate and support teachers in teaching labor history or hosting guest speakers in their classrooms, and familiarizing them with the many resources available to them involving Wisconsin Labor History.

WLHS is expanding to younger generations, partly from our enthusiastic participation in National History Day.  We have begun a fund to ally costs of attending national competition for needy and deserving students, funded in great part by donations in Jim Reiland’s memory.  There is so much more that can be done, most requiring your participation rather than your money.  more information and to get involved with WLHS’s National History Day activities.  Volunteering to be a general judge for NHD is not the same as volunteering to be a judge for our special prizes.  Please consider helping us in one of the following ways:

  • Become a volunteer judge at one of the ten regional conferences in the state.
  • Encourage middle and high schools students you know to submit entries and assist in providing them with resources.
  • Make a donation to our Labor History in the Schools Fund that helps to cover the cost of our cash prizes.

For more information, click here.

See brochure on National History Day.

Please contact us to show your interest in this project at

Readers favor keeping state flag; it features labor’s heritage

The idea that Wisconsin’s state flag should be junked found little favor in an online survey conducted by the Wisconsin Labor History Society.

Only one out of the 33 persons who replied to the survey agreed with the view of a column in Madison’s Isthmus newspaper (July 4, 2016) that Wisconsin’s long-standing state flag was too cluttered and should be changed for a more appealing, modern design.

Wisconsin-Flag-06302016Most respondents (27 or 82%) agreed with the statement that “the current flag should stay because it displays the contributions of working people” to the state’s history.  Three others preferred to keep the current flags because of its historic tradition, while two said that they were “not sure” whether a change should be made.

What attracted most respondents to the current flag was that it incorporates the State Seal, created in 1851 by the state’s first governor, Nelson Dewey.  The seal portrays a sailor and a miner flanking a coat of arms that includes symbols of the tools of farmer, miner, blacksmith and sailor, all four trades that were significant in Wisconsin’s early development.

Several comments submitted by respondents displayed their thinking: “It reflects the history of labor workers in Wisconsin, in fact it brings history to life. One of the problems with today’s society is that too many people don’t care about history anymore. Here is a chance to keep that image on the flag, and as we all know, images can spark curiosity and imagination. Even the drawing itself is done in an old world style. It is quite beautiful and the colors are brilliant. . .”

“ . . . Wisconsin has the only flag with people on it, and it IS the people who count. We are not taking the flag onto a battlefield. The abstraction wipes out that which might not be so wise to forget. Why trade our roots for eye candy?”

“The flag represents all of the people that worked to build this State. Many died because of it. The flag is rich in tradition. The flag represents all of the people that worked to build this State. Many died because of it. The flag is rich in tradition.”

One respondent said the flag needs to be changed: “A new flag that incorporates working class history in Wisconsin is a fine idea, but the current flag is cluttered, ugly, and not effective as a symbol of Wisconsin or labor pride. We need a new flag.”

Pleas to change the flag due to its artistic shortcomings have come occasionally in newspaper columns, such as from July 1, 2015, Wausau Record Herald and the Isthmus.  Thus far, no official action has been instituted to make any changes.

Unions need to involve immigrant workers in order to thrive


The future growth of the labor movement depends heavily upon the nation’s more than 42 million immigrants.

That theme emerged again and again during discussions at the 35th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society held May 21 at UAW Local 72 in Kenosha.  The more than 100 persons attending gained insight into the struggles recent immigrants face in this country, learned about labor’s “checkered history” with immigrants and discovered what unions currently are doing to assure all workers are properly represented.

The topic was “especially timely,” commented WLHS President Steve Cupery who said he hoped the discussion may provide unionists with a “new understanding as to how to talk wiith fellow workers that may be tempted by the demagoguery of Donald Trump.”  He said it’s our obligation to challenge such thinking.


Immigrants are a growing part of our population, now totaling 13%, an increase in Wisconsin from 2.5% in 1990 to 5% in 2014, commented Sergio Gonzalez, a doctoral student in history from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  Gonzalez is also co-president of the Teaching Assistants Association at the university and a Latino leader.  He spoke in place of Immanuel Ness, an activist and professor of sociology at New York University who cancelled due to illness.

“For decades, there has been strength within the immigrant community, strength to mobilize and fight back,” he said.  “For the majority of our movement’s history, however, labor has either failed to acknowledge and welcomed that strength or worse, has pushed against it.”

It wasn’t that way at first, when immigrant populations in Milwaukee made up most of the labor movement, often forming unions based largely upon their ethnicity, Gonzalez said. In the early 20th Century, however, the Wisconsin labor movement became “more reactionary toward growing immigration,” reflecting the changes in attitudes in unions throughout the nation, he said.  Gonzalez cited numerous examples of union activities that were hostile toward immigration, ranging from a 1917 American Federation of Labor resolution to bar Chinese labor (calling it “coolie labor”) to supporting a 1924 act to limit immigration by southern and eastern Europeans and Asians.

A real shift in policy came in the 1980s when labor supported the Immigration Reform Act of 1986, he said.  Meanwhile unions began active campaigns that involved organizing immigrants, such as SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign,” he added.

“In 2000, AFL-CIO leadership finally disavowed a one-hundred-year tradition of restriction and fear by openly calling for amnesty and full labor protections for all immigrant workers, regardless of their legal status,” he said.

Labor unions need to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal, state and local level, Gonzalez argued; such reform should “work for workers and not legislation that bends to the whims of employers looking for cheap, controllable and deportable labor.”

“It is among immigrants, who daily face seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their workplaces that the House of Labor will find the next generation to push our movement forward.”


Following up on Sergio Gonzalez theme, Michael Rosen, economics professor at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, declared that the labor movement and the immigrant rights movement need each other.

Labor, even in its diminish state, has resources and important contacts, he said, while the immigrant movement has numbers (of people), passion, courage and militancy.  He reflected that the labor movement has lost the militancy that marked its early years, but that the infusion of the immigrant workforce could revitalize it. Labor needs to stop its decline and immigrant workers need to be organized, creating a mutually compatible combination.

The influx of immigrants into Milwaukee, he said, has been critical in keeping the city from losing population.  While the city’s population grew less than one percent since 2000, its Latino numbers have swelled by 51% from 71,000 to 108,000.  Without the influx of Latinos into the city, the population would have fallen dramatically.

Immigrant voters have an important role to play in the 2016 elections, Rosen noted, particularly in “swing states” like Wisconsin, New Mexico and Colorado.  “The Latino vote in this election will be a determinant into who will become the President of the United States,” he declared.


WLHS Board Member Luz Sosa led two panel discussions that examined the experiences of immigrant workers and what labor and other organizations are doing to organize within immigrate communities.

The courage of immigrant workers was demonstrated in the testimonies of five who made up a panel discussion at the conference.

After hearing the presentations by the workers, one member of the audience summed it up perfectly, noting that workers in this country should learn from the inspiring examples, shown by the five speakers, several of whom had their remarks translated from Spanish to English.  He said while many U.S. workers may be afraid to stand up to their bosses and join in walkouts or other job actions, the stories of workers showed that “immigrants have courage.”

All of the panelists reflected that upon entering the United States, they found it necessary to “work, work, work,” leaving little time to think about forming unions or seeking a better life through organizing.  Most came to this country without an understanding of how important unions could be for them.

Ramon Munoz, came from his native Mexico, where he said unions were much stronger where you can’t be easily fired from a job.  The father of nine children, he and his family has been in the United States since the early 1980s.  Munoz said he was surprised to get fired recently after he went to the boss in his nonunion shop to ask for a raise for all the workers.

Another native of Mexico, Mauricio Galicia, told of his struggles to find work after arriving as an undocumented person in Los Angeles.  Most of the jobs he found were short-term, a few days or weeks in length, and he traded the warm climate for Milwaukee, where jobs were easier to find.

The lack of knowledge about U.S. labor laws and unions was common.  Mai McCarthy, a first generation Vietnamese immigrant, said her family came as refugees from that war-torn country in 1979.  She said her father fought with the U.S. troops and had to swim the Mekong River with two of her young siblings on his back to escape to safety.  The family, she said, had come from a culture of “hunters-gatherers” and were strange to the customs of the U.S.  Thus, her father worked constantly, “too scared to protest” about job issues and never got involved in unions.

Walid Abdalla, a native of Palestine, came to the United States from Jordan, leaving his family behind; often, he said, he faced homelessness, largely because he had trouble finding a job, even though he had experience as an auto mechanic.  Too busy trying to find shelter, he said he was “just working to survive,” thus finding little inclination to consider unionism.  He has been able to enroll at MATC to study engineering.

Gotofredo Meraz, however, has had extensive experience with unions, which he said he found to be “sweet and sour.”    His first became a member of a Steelworkers local union, where he found himself “drafted” to be on the bargaining committee.  That experience, he said, was positive in that the union was able to negotiate a three-year contract that provided for a narrowing of the gap in a two-tier wage system.  His second experience while working in a foundry under a different union was not successful, largely because the workforce was divided.  He became chairman of the committee, but because of the lack of support and a difficult employer their success was not great.

Nonetheless, Meraz stressed: Immigrant workers need a union. “We need to stick together.  I know that unions can help the Latinos, or the immigrant workers, and without the unions we may be in trouble.  I know that the unions may be in trouble without the immigrant workers, too.”


While labor unions historically have often been neglectful of immigrant workers – and even hostile – efforts are being made to involve immigrant workers into unions, both to strengthen the labor movement and to assist in the battle for immigrant rights.

That was stated over and over in an afternoon panel discussion on labor’s response to immigration.

Neidi Dominguez, of Washington D.C., is a leader of the new AFL-CIO initiatives and said that immigration is more than a policy issue; it is also about worker rights.

Dominquez, who is director of the Workers Centers Partnerships and deputy director of Community Engagement for the AFL-CIO, said the labor federation is developing training programs for organizers who are able to handle both workplace and immigrant rights issues.  She said the program has field organizers available to assist communities in such strategies, including creating workers centers.

One such workers center is run by Voces de La Frontera in Milwaukee.  Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the center, another panelist, noted the close relationship the center has with many unions in the state.  Such centers, she said, have grown to provide direct service to workers for workplace issues as well as to supporting workers in organizing unions.  The centers also work on immigration issues.

For years the National AFL-CIO’s Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) has been a leader in supporting Latino workers, both union and nonunion. Another panelist, Joseph “Pepe” Oulahan, a leader of the Wisconsin Chapter, said that LCLAA’s goal is to connect Latino workers to unions.

He noted the challenges faced in involving Latinos, stating that many Latinos are union members but don’t come to meetings or are active.  They view unions only as “those are the people who take my money every payday.”

“It’s a horrible shame and it’s hurting the union movement,” he added.   LCLAA is seeking to overcome some of those issues, Oulahan said.

A special thank you to Luz Sosa from AFT 212 for her inspiration, boundless energy and hard work in making this one of our most memorable conferences – a leader extraordinaire.

— A full report will be published in the Wisconsin Labor History Society’s quarterly newsletter to be printed and distributed in July.



The Genesis of Anti-Unionism in Wisconsin

(Prepared by Ken Germanson, president emeritus of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, for the North American Labor History Conference, Oct. 24, 2015)

Executive Summary

It was tragically ironic: the year 2011 marked the 100th Anniversary of the passage in Wisconsin of pioneering, progressive, pro-worker legislation; it also became the year in which one of the most regressive, anti-labor laws would be passed – the infamous Act 10 that virtually ended the right of public employees to collectively bargain. Four years later, in March of 2015, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the so-called right-to-work law, followed by cutting back on the protections of the state’s David-Bacon Act covering construction trades unions.

This paper will seek to put some perspective on how that change occurred; it will seek to explain how a state that passed the nation’s first, lasting workers compensation law in 1911 and also passed the first full-fledged public employee collective bargaining law in 1959 would in 2011 and 2015 take away basic worker rights that would likely result in robbing them of much hope for a rewarding life of work.

Wisconsin had been viewed as a beacon of progressive laws, such as being one of the first to provide for election-day voter registration.  National pundits have declared it a so-called Blue State that had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.   We will look at how Wisconsin has joined the once-union-strong Rust Belt states like Michigan to become “open shop” states.

There are five basic reasons for the State’s abrupt turn against workers and unions:

First, the state has a split political personality; historically most of the counties in the state have voted Republican while the more urban, industrial areas have been Democratic. The split has always been there, even though the nature of the two parties has changed through the years.

Secondly, the flight of industry to the South and later out of the country took away the state’s heavy concentrations of manufacturing bringing about the loss of union membership.

Thirdly, the mobilization of antiunion efforts by big business has grown more intense and effective in recent years, both in their handling of workers and in public education campaigns.

Fourthly, the stealth campaign waged by Governor Walker hid his true anti-worker agenda, making it possible to spring the damaging legislation on an unsuspecting public and labor movement.

Finally, the failure of the state’s labor unions throughout the years to mount an effective campaign to counter the growing antiunionism.

Wisconsin labor, however, is more determined than ever to rebound; its leaders are open to new ideas to make it happen.  As one said, “We are awakened. We are like roaches: we will come back.”

Paper available at

The Longest Strike: Class Warfare at Kohler

United Auto Workers Local 833 went on strike in late 2015 against the Kohler  Co. near Sheboygan.  It wasn’t a new experience for the union and the company that have a long history of industrial disputes.

Roger Bybee, labor columnist and longtime editor of the former Racine Labor,  has written an analysis of that history, including the longest strike in U.S. history, the United Auto Workers’ seven-year battle with the Kohler Corporation from 1954 to 1961. The strike was followed by four more years of legal skirmishing by the company and turned into a remarkable victory for the union and the national labor movement. The strike was centered in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a town of about 50,000 located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Kohler, founded in 1873 to produce bathroom and kitchen fixtures, began as a company town, offering housing and amenities to workers.  The account is an expansion of  remarks Bybee made at the 2014 Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society held in UAW Local 833 hall in Sheboygan Falls.  Read entire account.

Yes, Labor can rekindle the spirit to bounce back


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(Reflections from the 34th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, April 11, 2015, at Madison’s Labor Temple)

By 1781 after five years of the Revolutionary War, American morale was sagging; the British had won more battles than the Revolutionaries and hopes of winning freedom from the King were bleak.  In October of that year, with the help of outsiders — mainly the French — the tide was turned and the Royal forces surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown, an outcome that recharged the colonists and led to eventual victory.  Thus, the United States was created.

In the year 2015, the American labor movement finds itself very much in the same position as the Americans did in the early years of the Revolution.  Unions and working people have lost far more battles than they have won and the political forces are stacked against labor just as the better trained and armed British were against the colonists.

The question is: Can labor find a turning point to regain its once mighty strength?

For those attending the 34th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, it was encouraging that a spirit of renewed vigor has infected many unionists.  Not only was that apparent from the record crowd of 140 that attended, but from the comments that came from the floor that working people have it in their power to reverse the current trends.

What was most striking about the six hours of academic presentations, union leader comments and rank-and-file experiences were the frank and pointed observations of what the situation was; there was no glossing over the failures of union leaders and members alike; yet, they all agreed it wasn’t a time to point blame, but rather to begin working together to develop and employ strategies that would  improve the union fortunes.

Several points emerged:

Frame a moral argument for collective bargaining.  Yes, it’s time to tell the world that collective bargaining is a positive good, not only for unionized workers but for Society as a whole.  As unions have spent most of their time and resources bargaining wages and benefits for their members, tending to grievances and defending its own turf, they became easy targets for politicians (usually Republicans) to label teachers, snow plow drivers and public health nurses as a “privileged elite” with benefits and wages that many workers didn’t enjoy.  Unions must demonstrate that collective bargaining is a moral good for all.

As keynote speaker, Georgetown University’s Joe McCartin said: “Empowering workers in the workplace is healthy for democracy.”

Join the fight of others.  A constant theme throughout the conference was the call that unions must proactively join in those causes that call for economic and social justice, such as the current “Black Lives Matter” crusade, the strikes and demonstrations for low-paid fast food and retail workers, and the quest for a clean and healthful environment.  Too often, unions have reached out to other groups only when they were seeking support for their own needs; it’s time for unions to initiate outreach to others in the cause of justice.

“History shows how connected we are to each other,” Will Jones, UW-Madison historian, told the group.

It took the help of the French forces, after all, to bring victory to the Colonists at Yorktown.

Unions can exist under anti-union laws.  Just because a one-sided, anti-union state government passes Act 10 and the so-called right-to-work law, doesn’t mean the death of unions.  It brings into the labor movement an opportunity to work harder to connect with members and to respond to their needs.  Numerous examples were shown as to strategies being done on work sites to successfully represent workers in spite of the new restrictions.  Ken Sagar came from Iowa (he’s state AFL-CIO president) to relate that his 1200 member IBEW local maintains 99% membership in a RTW state, mainly due to the creation of “solidarity organizers” in each department; Luz Sosa, of AFT Local 212 (Milwaukee Area Technical College) has used the same strategy to retain 80% membership among fulltime staff under the more strict regulations of Act 10.

All of the participants acknowledged the difficulties of working under the new laws; it won’t be easy and success will require lots of ingenuity and hardwork.  An audience participant, Adam Schesh, said his time in South America proved that workers under iron-handed dictatorial control there always had hope.  They used “direct action” and that requires the “nitty-gritty work of organizing and winning itty-bitty victories to build self-confidence” to stand up to authoritative bosses and leaders, he said.

It was an enthusiastic conference, thankfully free of much empty rhetoric.  Instead the participants were deeply engaged in the conversation, hopefully reinvigorated to return to their own workplaces to begin the turnaround.  Just as the colonists found their spirits revived at Yorktown in 1781, perhaps the April conference helped to plant the seeds for labor’s own great victory.  In the words of  Joe Hill:  “Don’t mourn, organize.”  — Ken Germanson, May 27, 2015.

Spirited event recalls 1886 Bay View Tragedy

The chants of the two children of Jennifer Epps-Addison symbolized the spirit at the 129th Anniversary Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy on May 3. “Get it up, get down, Milwaukee is a union town,” sang the two youngsters to the thrill of more than 300 persons attending the annual event held on Milwaukee’s lakefront in the Bay View neighborhood.

Larger-than-life size puppet of 1886 labor leader "speaks" at annual Bay View Tragedy event.

Larger-than-life size puppet of 1886 labor leader “speaks” at annual Bay View Tragedy event.

Epps-Addison, executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now, was principal speaker, and she introduced her children to open her remarks. The children composed their own songs, always on a union theme, she said.

The event has become a tradition, having now been conducted annually for 29 years under the sponsorship of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. It recalls the May 5, 1886 killing of seven persons who were gunned down by the State Militia during a march of workers for the eight-hour-day, making it the state’s bloodiest incident involving workers.

Turning to the 2015 incidents in Baltimore arising out of the death of Freddie Grey in a police van, Epps-Addison said they were not a “riot,” as they have been depicted, but an “uprising.” She added that when people seem more concerned about the damage done to a CVS store than the death of a black man in police custody, “there’s an illness that needs to be cured in this country.”

“Those people had been marching in the streets for more than 5 days before the news cameras showed up, and the (Deontre) Hamilton family in Milwaukee has been marching for more than a year and those cameras are nowhere to be found,” she said.

The children of Jennifer Epps-Addison, key speaker, opened her speech with a ditty

The children of Jennifer Epps-Addison, key speaker, opened her speech with a ditty

The incident in Baltimore should be a lesson, Epps-Addison said, that direct action may be needed to bring justice. “We have collective power when we come together and fight for the values that we all believe in,” she said.

Throughout the state, Epps-Addison said, working families are “facing the same struggle, the struggle to support our families and facing the same struggle to provide a high quality education – a public education – to all of our children.”

Epps-Addison, who has been a leader in many of the demonstrations and rallies among low-income workers, cited other issues facing Wisconsinites under Gov. Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature, including cuts to the longterm care program making it difficult for elderly persons to remain in their homes along with rising health care costs due to the state’s refusal to accept U.S. support for Medicaid expansion money. Such actions mean families are “surviving under these various forms of state violence.”

She urged that citizens withhold their support of any and all politicians until they “show up for your issues” and commit to supporting programs that will restore economic and social justice. No politician who doesn’t support the demand for a $15 minimum wage should ask for the vote of working people, she added. Nor, she added, should any county board member who votes to privatize jobs seek the votes of workers.

“What builds power is workers, working together,” she said in urging workers and others to continue their efforts.

The rousing words of Epps-Addison followed the dramatic re-enactment of the 1886 Tragedy staged by the Milwaukee Public Theatre and the Milwaukee Puppet and Mask Theatre. The 15-minute staging included professional actors reading the lines of labor (as represented by the larger-than-life-sized puppet of Paul Grottkau) and the business and government establishment (represented by a puppet of Gov. Jeremiah P. Rusk). Volunteers acted as marchers.

A moment of silence ended the re-enactment, with Anita Zeidler, daughter of late Mayor Frank P. Zeidler, laying a wreath at the foot of the historical marker site.

In all but one of the previous Bay View Tragedy events, Folksinger and retired Teamster Larry Penn sang his song written for the occasion, “Ghosts of Bay View.” He was not present this year, having died last October at age 87. Folksinger and Teachers Union Member Craig Siemsen took Larry’s role to sing “Ghosts” as well as a medley of Penn’s songs in a tribute.

The event is planned each year by a committee of labor union activists, neighborhood residents and others under the sponsorship of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. Co-sponsors include the Bay View Historical Society, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and the Milwaukee Area Labor Council. — Ken Germanson, May 6, 2015.

‘Freedom’ is for bosses only under R-T-W


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Nomination for the most abused word in the English language: FREEDOM.

Whenever corporations want to escape from regulations that call for maintaining a safe and healthful workplace or that require them to send uncontaminated food into the marketplace, they trot out the word “freedom.”

How often have you heard it expressed that such rules are needless inferences and stifle job growth? And hasn’t that been followed with a plea for freedom from “the heavy hand” of government?

Now, in Wisconsin, the word freedom is becoming misused again as proponents seek to bum rush to passage their anti-union law prohibiting union shop agreements that call for all workers in the bargaining unit to pay union dues or a fee for the cost of representation. The proponents claim the law is needed give workers the “freedom” whether or not to pay for union representation.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who can be against freedom?

But the reality is that the proposed (and misnamed ‘right-to-work’) law does little to give workers any freedom in the workplace. Instead it gives the boss greater freedom to force low wages, lousy benefits and oppressive working conditions upon its employees.

Laws that ban union shop-type agreements have become all the rage for Republican-controlled states; the fact is the laws do nothing to help ordinary workers. The laws have three purposes: 1) to pay off the corporate donors of many Republican donors; 2) to weaken unions so that they become less and less of a resource for progressive legislation, and 3) to give the bosses a union-free hand to push workers around as they see fit.

It’s no secret that workers in an open shop situation will find their union’s ability to represent them greatly weakened. In an open shop situation, management’s power to force decisions down the union’s throat is greatly strengthened as the bosses pit worker against worker, thus taking away the basic solidarity needed for effective representation.

Just like workers without a union contract, those in open shop situations may find they have little say about their work schedules, their time-off, their pay scales and their health insurance, not to mention fair treatment on the job and a whole host of things that matter most to them. Stories abound as more and more non-union employers tell workers to stay for a double-shift, to work without sufficient time off between shifts, to be cheated out of overtime, to “work off the clock” (a typical habit in the restaurant industry), to be given the most onerous jobs over and over while the boss’ girlfriend gets favored treatment, and to suffer other types of disrespect.

As the unions have weakened in the last 35 years, workers’ wages throughout the nation have stagnated while corporate profits and rewards to the wealthy have grown many times over. And if unions grow even weaker, there’s little hope of those trends ever reversing course. All workers will suffer, not merely those in unions.

The “freedom” promised to workers in this union shop prohibition law (the miss-tagged right-to-work law) is a myth. It only gives the bosses “freedom” to push workers around.  — Ken Germanson, Feb. 23, 2015

Corporate greed placed at heart of 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire


This essay, written by Makena Easker, a sophomore student at Durand HEaskerigh School, was entered into the 2014 National History Day competition.  It is reproduced since it brought the meaning of the 103 year old Triangle Fire into the present day, and to represent many of the efforts of young people who participate in the Society’s various “Labor History in the Schools” projects. Makena presented her paper at the May meeting of the Greater Western Central Area Labor Council at Eau Claire in May 2014. Also presented was a video of by Sarah Vetsch, entitled, “Fight for Rights, Failing in Responsibility: Conflict and Casualty in the Copper County Strike of 1913.”  The students were joined by their parents.   

(Please note that citations shown within this essay may be found either by clicking on the Appendix or on the Annotated Bibliography.)


In 1911, William Howard Taft was serving his first term. The Philadelphia A’s had beaten the Chicago Cubs in the previous World Series and the dance, the tango, was trending throughout the nation.

Also during this year, on March 25, in New York City, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The doors were locked to prevent theft, so leaving the building was difficult. For many workers trapped inside, their only means of escape was by jumping out of the windows. A survivor, Pauline Cuoio Pepe, later discussed the event with a man compiling stories about the fire into a book:

“I saw the people throwing themselves out the window. I wouldn’t dare. I didn’t have the courage…We were all torn to pieces. My hair was a mess. My coat was torn. I had no pocketbook or nothing. When my mother saw me, she thought somebody got ahold of me and was killing me… We were also angry. “What the hell did they close the door for? What did they think we’re going out with? What are we gonna do, steal a shirtwaist? Who the heck wanted a shirtwaist?”(Kisselhoff 325). 

These were thoughts shared by many of those trapped inside the ill-fated Triangle Factory. Nevertheless, the fire’s influence in history will not soon be forgotten. Even though strides have been taken to improve factory conditions, including the creation of the Factory Investigation Commission and later OSHA, many workers’ rights are still overlooked; it is our generation’s responsibility to change that. To fully understand this statement, however, it is necessary to start at the beginning of this tragic tale.

Background Information

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were immigrants from Russia who arrived in the United States during the early 1890s. They met and started a business together based on Blanck’s business sense and Harris’ industry expertise. In 1900, they opened the Triangle Waist Company on Wooster Street. The products they produced were shirtwaists, loose fitting tops styled after menswear. They were more liberating than Victorian style bodices, and, therefore, popular with female workers in New York [Refer to Appendix A]. The men priced them “modestly” at $3 each, which is over $70 today (U.S. Department of Labor n. pag.). In 1902, the pair moved the company to the ninth floor of the new Asch building. The tables were arranged so conversation would be minimized among workers [Refer to Appendix B]. This was done in an attempt to increase productivity. After four years, they expanded to the eighth floor and again in 1908, when sales hit $1 million, to the tenth floor.

The success experienced by the factory owners allowed for them to move from their cramped apartments to large brownstones that overlooked the Hudson River. Harris had four servants, and Blanck had five. They arrived to work in chauffeured cars. Additional shirtwaist factories were opened in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Blanck partnered with his brothers and opened more around the country. With all of these factories the men operated, they were producing more than 1,000 shirtwaists a day. They were given the nickname “Shirtwaist Kings.” Little did they know, over 100 years later, they would earn another nickname: The Fourth Worst Bosses of all Time (Gibson n. pag.).

The majority of the workers were young immigrants – Italian, Russian, Hungarian, and German – who didn’t speak English (“141 Men” 1). In time, they began to feel like the machines they worked with. Morris Rosenfeld, a Yiddish poet living in the early 1900s, described this feeling in his poem, “In the Factory”: “And void is my soul,” He complained. “I am but a machine. I work and I work and I work, never ceasing.” In order to retain high profit levels, it was necessary to produce the cheapest shirtwaist in the largest quantity. The production team worked long hours for little pay. Some journalists during the late 1800s and early 1900s recognized factories with similar conditions. Wirt Sikes, a popular social reformer, was one of these news reporters and described a factory he toured in his 1868 testimonial, “Among the Poor Girls”: “The room is crowded with girls and women, most of whom are pale and attenuated, and are being robbed of life slowly and surely. The rose which should bloom in their cheeks has vanished long ago. The sparkle has gone out of their eyes…they breathe an atmosphere of death” (Stein 12-13). Young girls who should have been celebrating life were, instead, packed into rooms and drained of their vitality. Additionally, security was tight. A foreman monitored the workforce during the day and inspected workers’ bags as they left at night. Blanck ordered the secondary exit door to be locked.

Eventually, in November of 1909, the workers could not take the cruelty anymore. They went on strike, and the owners took the walkout as a “personal attack.” Harris and Blanck hired policemen and brutes to beat, reprimand, and cause panic among demonstrators. Finally, after a few months, the owners agreed to allow shorter hours and higher wages, yet they still refused a union.

About a year later, on March 25, 1911, at 4:40 P.M., a fire started in the northeast corner of the eighth floor. A lighted match was thrown into clippings near oil cans (“Crowd” 1). While smoking was prohibited, it was constantly indulged. There was no explosion, but the blaze still spread quickly. Soon, the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors were engulfed in flames. Some workers escaped by running down the stairs; however, that avenue was eventually cut off by the fire. Others survived by getting rides with Caspar Mortillalo and Joseph Zito on elevators. Zito said, afterwards, that he saved over 100 (“Blame” 2). This, combined with the firemen’s futile efforts to put out the fire, left many girls still trapped in the building. These girls rushed to the windows and looked down at Green Street, 100 feet below them. After the first girl jumped, they all began to drop. The crowd below watched in horror. They yelled, “Don’t jump!” Their shouting did nothing [Refer to Appendix C]. William Shephard described what he experienced while on the telephone: “I learned a new sound – a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk. Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead” (Shephard n. pag.). One body was referred to as “A mass of ashes, with blood congealed on what had probably been the neck” (“Sad” 1). It was a gruesome, painful end for all victims. The fire net did not save over one or two (“Stories of Survivors” 1). The trapped girls did not have chance.

The day after, 50,000 watched the ruins. Starting at 6:00 A.M., 500 frantic men and women demanded to be let in at the gate of the improvised morgue (“Crowd” 1). The covered pier of the Charities Dock served as a gathering place for mourners and curious onlookers [Refer to Appendix D]. The bodies were arranged by degree of likeliness to humanity. All those seemingly beyond recognition were near the end of the line. The last forty coffins contained bodies that the authorities said would probably prove impossible of identification (“Sad” 1). The women rushed about moaning and crying, tearing out their hair. At the end of the day, on March 26, fifty-five remained unidentified.

The papers reported the death toll was anywhere from 145 to 147 people. Of course, since the owners had escaped unscathed by the fire, they were put on trial for manslaughter in the first and second degrees. They testified that the doors were never locked, yet witnesses reported otherwise. Robert Wolfson, who had worked for the company for almost ten years, swore that Harris purposefully locked the doors. After the fire, Harris reportedly said, “The dead ones are dead and will be buried. The live ones are alive and they will have to live. Sure the doors were locked; I wouldn’t let them rob my fortune” (“Triangle Fire Case” 1). When asked why every employee had to leave the factory by the Greene Street exit, he responded that it was to prevent theft. He went on to talk about how he had discovered over ten shirtwaists were stolen in 1908. The prosecutor asked the magnitude of losses. Harris quietly admitted it would not be more than $25 a year (Hoenig n. pag.). Nearly a year following the fire, the court brought in the startling verdict of not guilty. The judge was pleased with the jurors’ decision, yet the public was mortified. Despite the shockwaves sent out by the fire, the owners did not learn their lesson. In the summer of 1913, Blanck was arrested for locking a door during work hours. The despicable pair also filed insurance claims far exceeding their losses, receiving $60,000 above documented damages (Hoenig n. pag.). The men were greedy, selfish, and materialistic murderers.

Efforts to Preserve Peoples’ Rights

There was one good thing that came from the fire, though. The district attorney foretold it in March of 1911. “I have no doubt that this disaster will lead to a general investigation as to the conditions existing in factories in this city” (“Blame” 2). His prediction came true. Union ranks swelled from 30,000 in 1909 to 250,000 in 1913 (Hoenig n. pag.). In 1912, the Factory Investigating Commission, headed by Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith, was created. The commission examined thousands of workplaces in small and large industries. It served as a model for the rest of the nation. One organization formed in the Factory Investigating Commission’s footsteps was the Bureau of Fire Prevention in May of 1913. In the past hundred years, the bureau has saved innumerable lives by imposing fire safety codes and remains to be the driving force behind new initiatives. In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed a series of programs, known as the New Deal, to stabilize the economy during the Great Depression. These reforms won safer factories and shorter hours for garment workers. After many years of founding progressive organizations, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration was established in 1970. OSHA, an agency of the Department of Labor, is charged with the enforcement of safety and health legislation. The fire emboldened the call for workers’ rights and, for the most part, it seemed as if the lives of workers could not get much safer. Employers began recognizing and acting upon their responsibilities to provide a secure work environment.

Though many believe the resulted labor legislation from the fire has created ideal workplaces throughout the globe, this is simply not true. “Dozens of ordinary workers die in a fire, making the shirts ordinary Americans will wear on their backs. Doors were locked. Some succumbed to smoke. Others jumped several stories to their deaths in a desperate, inevitably fatal, bid to evade the flames. But this wasn’t New York, 1911. This was Bangladesh, 2010” (O’Neill 24). Rory O’Neill, writer and professor, put everything into perspective with the opening sentence to his essay. However, Bangladesh is not the only country where disasters like this occur. Similar stories are told in nations such as China, Pakistan, Philippines, Nicaragua, and Cambodia. “In 2010,” O’Neill went on, “British oil multinational BP, operating in U.S. waters, saw its reputation torn to shreds as a result of its thirst for deep sea oil dollars. Eleven workers died and the Gulf of Mexico was coated in a toxic smear” (O’Neill 24). O’Neill told another story that sounded familiar. “In 1988, U.S. oil multinational Occidental, operating in British waters, was the villain behind the Piper Alpha rig explosion. While 167 workers died, Occidental escaped unscathed” (O’Neill 24). Accidents where neglecting CEOs evade consequences unearth feelings of frustration and injustice, but they tend to occur the most frequently.

As much as Americans would like to believe that tragedies such as these only exist outside of the United States, the facts show otherwise. Tom O’Connor, Executive Director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, made this clear in his essay. “Some 15 workers still lose their lives every day on the job from injuries – and many more from long-latent illnesses” (16). One example of a long-latent illness is exposure to silica dust, which continues to claim the lives of hundreds of workers each year. Wal-Mart was sued in the past decade for routinely locking their night-shift workers in their stores to prevent theft. Steven Greenhouse published an article in The New York Times about the company’s hazardous practices.

For more than 15 years, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, has locked in overnight employees at some of its Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores. It is a policy that many employees say has created disconcerting situations, such as when a worker in Indiana suffered a heart attack, when hurricanes hit in Florida and when workers’ wives have gone into labor (1).

Car wash workers had severe chemical burns and California’s pesticide-soaked fields cause immigrants to bake to death. Just like during the days of the Triangle fire, immigrants are being taken advantage of due to their needs for jobs. Twenty-nine workers died in the 2010 Massey Energy underground mine explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia (Romney 15). In 2013, information was released concerning Massey’s CEO’s advanced warnings of surprise federal inspections. This way, he could afford to have his mines in poor conditions until he knew an examination was scheduled. Other reports of carelessness include a construction worker with no harness falling to his death and an eighteen year old buried alive in a collapsed trench. Wisconsin is not picture-perfect either. The United Students against Sweatshops (USAS) forced UW-Madison to cancel its contract with Nike due to labor violations in Nike’s Honduran plants. “These incidents happen daily across the U.S. and each one is the sort of hazard that we have known about since the days of the Triangle fire, for which simple preventable measures are easily available,” said O’Connor. “Yet they keep happening, day after day, year after year” (16). While the aftermath of the Triangle fire had a large impact on history, it was obviously too inadequate to prevent the disregard of basic human rights.

It has been the goal of many committees across the world to reduce the chances of death and injury in the workplace, but their efforts are not enough. Tragedies that sound so similar to that of the Triangle Fire happen too often in the U.S. and the world. Despite how dismal this sounds, hope is not lost. There are ways to fix this problem. Laws can be passed, relief funds can be donated, and organizations can be created. In the words of Jeanne Stellman, professor and lecturer at Columbia University, “The best homage we can pay to the young women and men who died in the Triangle fire is to redouble efforts to prevent the needless toll of occupational hazards that don’t blaze behind chained doors but plague the lives of working men and women every day” (23).  

No worker rights in ‘right-to-work’ laws!

Mike Nichols’ column in Monday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Dec. 15) claims to set the “facts” about so-called right-to-work laws. Let’s examine just how “factual” his words are.

He reflects on his own personal dislike of the requirement in union shop agreements that all workers join the union and tells of his own refusal to join the Newspaper Guild while a reporter for the newspaper.

Paying for the costs that a union shoulders in representing all workers on a job site is an expense that all workers on that job site should share. It is the union after all that bargains for the pay scale that all workers in the unit enjoy . . . as well as the health insurance plan, the holidays, the vacation schedule, etc. Most importantly, the union is there to assure that workers were treated fairly on the job so that everyone gets equal pay for equal work and no one can be fired on the whim of the boss.

It’s hard to believe Nichols claim that unions don’t affect the pay and benefits of workers. Does Nichols feel that the benefits he got on the job came out of the goodness of the management of the Journal Company? It’s a feature of our free enterprise system that an employer seeks to get the most work it can from the fewest number of employees at the least cost.

Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in July, 1935, giving workers the right to unionize and to bargain collectively. Many economists say the NLRA might have been the most effective of all New Deal laws in helping to move the country out of the Great Depression by putting more money in the coveralls of workers, thus helping businesses grow with more paying customers.

Employer health insurance – now standard among all companies – came into existence in the 1940s at the insistence of labor union demands at a time when pay increases were restricted by wartime controls.

My own personal proof of the power of unions came on my first week on the job as a reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1957 when the paper was owned by the Hearst Corporation. The newsroom steward for the Newspaper Guild introduced himself and quickly solved an issue concerning my first weekly pay check. I never forgot that act of support.

I recall bumping into my Journal Company counterparts on news assignments and they would ask how our union negotiations were going. It was common knowledge at the time that the Journal would equal or exceed whatever increase we bargained, obviously just to keep the Guild out of the Journal workplace. Personally I benefited when the Guild bargained a pay differential for those of us who had to work weird night-time shifts (mine ran ‘til 2:30 a.m.).

Nichols is right on one point: he didn’t want to support legislative and political causes with which he did not agree. The fact is that he wouldn’t have had to pay for those costs. Under federal law, he had a right to withhold those portions of his dues that do not cover the costs of the representing him in his job. It should be noted here that federal law prohibits the use of dues money for political reasons.

Finally, most workers are hardly able to bargain for themselves; of course, some are clever enough – or admittedly talented enough – to win the boss’ favor. Most of us, however, may not be so lucky, and this is where worker solidarity is critical. It is striking that many of the leaders of our professional athletic unions tend to be among the already highest paid and honored of their sports. Yet, they realize that they will benefit in the long run from supporting the welfare of the whole team; how good can a quarterback be when the lower-paid grunts of the offensive line aren’t playing well?

As Nichols suggested, let’s indeed look at the facts. I highly doubt that Nichols’ Wisconsin Public Research Institute – which the Journal Sentinel should have noted is a conservative think tank – is the group for which to rely upon for such facts.

(Kenneth A. Germanson is a retired union official and president emeritus of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. He worked at the Milwaukee Sentinel from 1957 to 1962.)