Keith Knutson: Unions have History of Protecting Workers

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Keith Knutson is a history professor at Viterbo University in La Crosse, WI.]

...It was a unionized nation that defeated fascism in World War II. In turn, the American dream of fair compensation for hard work would be achieved.

A golden age of unionized progress and our most equitable wealth distribution came about in the 1950s.

Yet even then, Wisconsin produced U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy, who led a campaign against our unions and helped establish fear in the population that unions were directed by international communism. “Stalin Over Wisconsin” by Stephen Meyer informatively covers one episode of this story.

McCarthy used “indiscriminate, often unfounded, accusations, sensationalism, inquisitorial investigative methods” (Webster’s Collegiate dictionary’s definition of his tactics) in his anti-union obsession. He contributed mightily to an American cultural attitude that would become unreceptive to workers’ collective rights.

Yet, in 1959, at perhaps the zenith of American unions’ strength, Wisconsin was the first state to award collective bargaining rights to public employees. The Wisconsin Education Association Council’s (WEAC) own history acknowledges this right may have been won accidentally....

In the 1990s, Wisconsin’s Department of Employment relations and the State Employers Union (WSEU) instituted consensus bargaining. This cooperative approach created a positive environment for labor-management relations.

This could have been the avenue for Gov. Scott Walker to address this state’s budget shortfall. Instead, he has chosen President Ronald Reagan’s busting of the Professional Air-Traffic Controllers Association in 1981....

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