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.)

Turning 80: Has the NLRA lost its promise to protect workers?


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“How come workers don’t join unions?” the young man asked.

“More than 60% of workers do want unions, but today it takes lots of courage to make that happen,” the old man replied.

“Why?” persisted the youth who was in the throes of entering a union apprenticeship program.

“Let me tell you about the Wagner Act.”

In the historic year of 1935 when the first Social Security Act was enacted, the Wagner Act – or National Labor Relations Act — may have had a more immediate impact on getting the nation out of the depths of its economic woes. Signed into law on July 5, 1935, labor called it the workers’ Magna Carta.

The law proclaimed two basic principles: first, that working people had the right to combine and organize unions in the workplace, and, secondly, that once they had established such a union the employer was obligated to bargain in good faith with the union.

Prior to the passage of the Wagner Act, workers found their efforts to organize often stifled by the courts leaving employers free to fire workers for any reason at all. Mass production workers rarely formed lasting unions until the enactment of the Wagner Act. With the passage of the law, workers realized the U.S. government was available to protect them in their quest for a union that would improve their wages and help provide for a safer and more just workplace.   Encouraged, union organizing exploded and one by one the nation’s massive industries in autos, steel and mining became organized. It was a trend that would continue so that by 1954 more than one out of three workers in the U.S. was in a union.

Today, union membership stands at about one out of every ten workers in the U.S. That means that 90% of workers have few protections against being arbitrarily fired, unfairly paid or forced to work on uncertain schedules. They are at the mercy of their employers, plain and simple. The result has been devastating to working people, causing wages to stagnate for more than three decades.

Today, then the question is: what happened to the promise of the Wagner Act?

Today it is hardly more than a toothless tiger. It was weakened by successive antiunion laws, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959. Its rulings on what constitutes an “unfair labor practice” on the part of employers have been weakened either through a succession of pro-business NLRB Board members or through rulings by Federal Courts.

The truth is that organizing under the current rules of the NLRB has become almost impossible. Today, it would be dishonest for a union organizer to tell a bunch of workers that their jobs won’t be in jeopardy just because they sought a union in their workplace. He or she must tell these workers that if they were fired because of their organizing activities it might be difficult to prove under current interpretations their firing was for union activity, and, that if they were to win the case, such relief might be two years in the offing. What worker can live with two years of unemployment?

If a group of workers were able to form a union, the employer is often able to use all sorts of stalling tactics to make it nearly impossible to eventually reach a contract. The prolonged process causes workers to become disillusioned with the union.

If the NLRB has lost its purpose to protect working people, what’s the answer?

Perhaps the answer lies in looking at why the law first came into being. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, employers had little regard for their workers, summarily cutting wages, indiscriminately firing workers in favor of replacement workers. The workers rebelled in many plants with walkouts, rallies and sitdown strikes.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, pushed by his reformist advisers, prolabor leaders in Congress and even some enlightened businessmen, agreed that stability was needed to reduce the disruptions in the workplace. Furthermore, Roosevelt was convinced that something had to be done to put money in the coveralls of workers.

FDR balked at first to the inclusion of the collective bargaining clause in the Wagner Act (as well as its short-lived preceding law, the National Industrial Recovery Act).   It was for Senator Robert Wagner

Workers mass to protest Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

Workers mass to protest Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

of New York (key sponsor of the law) to convince the President and others that the provision was necessary.

On May 15, 1935, Wagner gave a powerful address to Congress:

“[It] is responsive to the ominous industrial disturbances of last summer, when blood ran freely in the streets and martial law was in the offing, [and] appeals to the conscience and intelligence of all those who know the history and are imbued with its high ideals.”

Are we not in the same position today? From 1930 to 1935, workers had few protections and jobs were dear; yet, they rallied in solidarity to strike, to march and to campaign for a better future.   Today workers have few protections from the once promising Wagner Act and jobs are hard to come by.   It’s time now to create strategies that will enable workers to again march in solidarity and bring about reforms in the workplace. Ken Germanson

Larry Penn: Poet musician of the workers

When the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO named Larry Penn the “poet laureate for Wisconsin labor,” it was most appropriate for the retired Teamster who was better known for his folksinging.

Not only did his songs – that highlighted working people, hoboes, disturbed

Larry Penn at Bay View Tragedy event in May 2013 with young admirer.

Larry Penn at Bay View Tragedy event in May 2013 with young admirer.

children and others – have a poetic quality, but they that celebrated the human spirit that comes to those who must struggle for justice. The State AFL-CIO in 1998 conferred that poet laureate name on Penn, who died at the age of 87 on October 7 of complications from diabetes and heart disease.

It seemed that wherever there was a strike or a workers’ rally in last forty years, Penn was present, bringing his guitar and singing in his distinctive voice to stir the spirits of the folks. He helped lure Pete Seeger to the 1980s strike at the Cudahy, Wis., packinghouse strike; he traveled to Ft. Smith, Ark., to boost the workers there during a pending strike in the late 1980s; in short, he was present rain or shine, warm or cold, whenever workers need him.

In spite of fragile health in the last few years of his life, Penn performed until the last months of his life, when he entered hospice care. He was among the founders of the Bay View Tragedy event and performed at each annual commemoration in early May from 1986 through May of this year. Though too fragile to mount the three stairs to the platform, Penn sat next to it; yet, when he opened up to talk briefly about his two songs, his voice was loud and clear and full of humor. One of the songs, “Ghosts of Bay View,” that he wrote in 1986 on the centennial of the 1886 massacre in which the state militia killed seven when firing into a crowd of workers marching for the eight-hour-day. And the crowd sang along to “Solidarity Forever” which he led to close the show.

Unlike many labor folksingers, Penn was a worker and teamster who became guitarist and singer midway through his life. A self-taught guitarist, he played an acocustic guitar and continued to be his own worst critic through the years. What made his songs real was that he had experienced most of the feelings about which he wrote. As a young man, he worked for a household moving company doing interstate trucking. After his marriage to his wife, Pat, he became a local cartage driver, working mainly with Barry Trucking, of Milwaukee, often pulling a flatbed trailer carrying structural steel.

Penn’s first venture into singing for causes was for the cause of equal rights for African-Americans when he joined many of the marches led by the late Rev. James Groppi, singing along with a bass player named Bill Brown. His sense of justice brought he and his wife to host the formation of a group to support civil rights causes in his own white, working class neighborhood.

For the most part, Penn sang his own compositions, his earliest on the topics of civil rights. He taught himself some popular labor songs, such as “Union Maid,” which he sang regularly and “I’m Stickin’ with the Union.” His first formal union gig was at a summer school program for members of the Allied Industrial Workers Union (now part of Steelworkers) at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Soon, he was appearing in union causes and in 1976, Joe Glazer, another labor folksinger and record producer heard Penn and had him cut his first record, “Workin’ for a Livin’,” a collection of labor songs. Glazer brought him to Washington DC to perform at the George Meany Center, and soon Penn’s career took off.

Nonetheless, Penn did not quit his day job, continuing to drive during the day and performing on weekends and evenings until he retired at age 58 to work fulltime at composing, writing and performing. He cut a number of records for Collector Records, usually with a labor or railroading theme.

His most popular composition was “I’m a Little Cookie,” inspired he said by memories of the old Johnston Cookie Co., that sold broken cookies for $1.25 a bag, the lyrics repeating the words that the broken cookies tasted just as good as a cookie should. The song was written to honor emotionally disturbed or “damaged” children who could love just as much as any child.

His life will be honored at a celebration on at 5:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 19, at the Anodyne Coffee Roster, 224 W. Bruce St., in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point area. It will include tributes from other folksingers.

He is survived by his wife, five children, seven grandchildren and one great grandson.  See obituary from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 10, 2014.  — Ken Germanson, Oct 15, 2014

One family’s story traces Mineworkers’ union struggles

Book Review:


Sixteen Tons, by Kevin Corley.  A novel.  Hardball Press. 2014.Image

From the opening pages of this historical novel, the reader is thrust headlong into the bloody struggles that were involved in building the American labor movement, particularly among the nation’s coal miners.

Spanning forty years from 1890 to 1930, this novel follows an Italian immigrant family from the mine fields of West Virginia into Central Illinois where the United Mineworkers found its earliest organizing successes, and with it wages and conditions that would ease the life of Antonio and Angeline Vacca and their four sons.  The opening chapter begins with the chilling killing of African-American strikebreakers, brought by train from Alabama; a white union miner, who later befriends the Vaccas, fires shots that he believes may have killed one of the scabs, and the incident haunts him throughout the book.

It is the personalizing of these events, tracing miners battles from the tragedies of 1898 and 1899 in Virden and Pana, Illinois, that makes them so real.  The Vaccas – in one way or another – become involved in all of the UMW struggles, including at Ludlow, Colorado, and Matewan, West Virginia, and the major massacre in 1922 at Herrin IL.  Why connecting this immigrant family may seem a bit contrived, the author keeps it realistic and believable.  The use of the Vacca family to portray the blood and tears that went into organizing the Mineworkers Union is an effective tool.

The author details the difficulty of a miner’s job, as he seeks to keep up with production goals so that he can earn enough to care for his family.  His describes the dangers of shaft mining hundreds of feet below the earth, pointing the need to assure that the tunnels are shored up properly and the gases remain within safe limits.

It’s no picnic for the families above ground, who often must live in primitive conditions.  Through all this the Vacca family survives, albeit not without family disputes and arguments over the miners’ union strategies. 

The author is a retired Central Illinois schoolteacher who has spent much of his lifetime studying the miners of his area.  He is to be commended for not gilding the lily, as the saying goes, by sugar-coating some of the misdeeds and in-fighting that characterized the UMW of the day.

After all, the story of building a union should be about the people within the union, and not the leadership.  Ordinary people are not without warts, of course, and their victories are won in haphazard ways and often with losses on the battlefield.  Like the Vacca family of this novel, people persevere and eventually victory comes.

This book relates all of that among its more than 400 pages.  Most importantly, it opens our eyes to a history that should never be forgotten.  – Ken Germanson, May 26, 2014.


Nation’s longest strike at Kohler offers lessons for today’s unions

The longest strike in U.S. history – UAW Local 833 vs. Kohler Co – began in the company town of Kohler, Wisconsin, with massive picket lines on April 5, 1954 and did not end until a settlement in 1966.

The strike may have been one of the most important in our nation’s history and offers insights into how to rebuild labor’s power in the current era, according to speakers at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society held May 17 at the Emil Mazey Hall in Sheboygan.  The conference covered three decades of labor struggles at the plant, including the first strike for recognition that lasted from 1934 to 1941.

Several Local 833 retirees who walked the picket lines in the 1954 strike spoke at the conference, describing how worker solidarity sustained them through the long struggle and how various strategies helped to win near total victory.


Roger Bybee

Opening the conference, labor columnist and former editor Roger Bybee of Milwaukee said “simple solidarity” developed among the union members offering a lesson on how to best prepare union members for today’s struggles for justice.  He said, the union’s heavy reliance upon communications during the strike both with its members and the community is another example of a successful strategy against a company that was determined to kill the union.

He said the union during the second strike was “ahead of the times in communications” through the use of a daily radio show, cool public relations that include strikers dressing like Abraham Lincoln, a regular newsletter and other efforts.  Such strategies would be critical for unions seeking for winning disputes with companies in today’s world, he added.

Times have changed in the last fifty years, Joe Burns, labor attorney, union leader and author of the book, “Reviving the Strike,” said.  Thus, he said, the strike – which is labor’s ultimate weapon – has become a more difficult tactic for unionists.  Labor laws and subsequent court decisions have weakened the strike as a tool by taking away the power to have a “secondary boycott” that allows members of other unions to refuse to handle “struck goods.”

“The rules of the game have been re-written to protect corporate America,” Burns said, who is currently a negotiator with the Flight Attendants Union.  The ability of corporations to move manufacturing overseas, the high unemployment rate that makes it  easier to hire replacement workers, and the employers’ tendency to challenge unions at all costs have all contributed to stacking the deck against workers, he said.

Nonetheless, he argued, “Labor can’t succeed without the right to strike.  It’s all about power.”

Burns agreed the Kohler strike of the 1950s marked a transition in that it was one of the first examples of extreme behaviors of employer resistance to unions.  Prior to that employers sought to bargain with unions, often shutting down during a strike.  From that point on the ideology of the Kohler family to seek to destroy unions has been adopted by corporate America, Burns said.

Yet, there are examples if successful job actions, he said, referring to the nine-day September, 2012, strike of the Chicago Teachers Union.

One of the organizers of that strike, Matthew Luskin, also spoke, noting that the Chicago Teachers Union had built up strong community support prior to the job action.  As a result students and parents joined in supporting the strikers, thus removing the stigma that the striking teachers were unfairly disrupting the education of Chicago’s children.

“Five days into the strike,” he said, ‘polls showed 66% supporting the strike.”

He said the union linked its fight with the causes of racial justice and desire of parents to halt the Chicago School Board’s plan to shut down schools.  While the public supported these issues, they were also issues that their own members felt strongly about.

A lot of the success, too, involved giving the power of decision-making to the members themselves, he said.  For instance, some members wanted to picket Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home, a strategy the leadership advised against since it might cause a public relations backlash.  Yet, they did picket the mayor’s home and it was a great PR success.

By giving the power to the people, they develop a stronger sense that the cause becomes theirs to win or lose and thus builds solidarity, he said.

In relating their experiences during the 1950s strike, panelists cited the strong community support as key to their success.  Charles Conrardy, who became Local 833 president in 1961, said the credit union, for instance, required strikers to pay only the interest on their mortgages to avoid foreclosure; in addition, he said, “there were lots of jobs available” where strikers could find part-time or temporary work to supplement the strike assistance provided by the UAW.

The UAW created a nation-wide boycott of Kohler products, gaining wide support throughout the labor movement.  Even though secondary boycotts were prohibited at the time, construction workers – particularly those in the plumbing trade – were able to raise enough issues to prompt contractors to shy away from using Kohler fixtures.

Gordon Billmann, who worked 45 years at the company (1943-1988), said he was impressed with the solidarity shown on the first day of the strike.  He recalled strikers came out 3,000 strong to march three-deep around the plant.

Julius Siech, who eventually became vice-president of the local, credited the assistance from the UAW as critical.  “We had a good international union behind us,” he said.  Siech later proved to be a key witness in the NLRB case that found Kohler committed an unfair labor practice by cutting workers from a typical 48 hours (with overtime) week to 32 hours.  He had saved every pay stub from his first week of work at Kohler in 1947 to prove the point.

Cal Potter was about ten-years-old when the strike began; he recalled joining his father on the picket line.  His father was one of the last strikers called back, having been away from the plant for more than ten years.  Potter, who later served some 20 years in the State Legislature (always with labor’s endorsement), recalled that his father worked seasonal jobs at first in a cannery factory and the family used vouchers to get food from the A & P store and for such items as shoes for the children.  His father later gained steady work at a brass factory until being recalled in the settlement.

The strike changed Sheboygan, Potter said, since the community was closely aligned through jobs at Kohler.  Potter and Conrardy both recalled that they knew which families in their neighborhoods included strikers and which included “scabs.”  There are still some who hold grudges against those who scabbed, Conrardy said.

Though the company constantly sought to get strikers to come to work, only about 800 of the 4,000 crossed picket lines, even at the end of the strike, Potter said.

Dave Boucher, current Local 833 president, said the solidarity that brought success in previous strikes seems to have diminished among current members.  In the last contract, the local members voted to accept a two-tier wage system, even though its bargaining committee had unanimously urged rejection.  “A significant number of members don’t vote in their own interests,” he said.

“I stand here in awe of the sacrifices of these people,” Boucher said, referring to the other panelists who carried on the strike that began sixty years before in April.