Wisconsin Labor Movement–1930s

The Need for the Ocupy Movement

I’m very proud of the Occupy movement as it brings back memories of the days my father helped bring tens of thousands of industrial workers into the ranks of organized labor. This took place in the early days of the depression. They increased union membership from 25,000 in 1932 to 200,000 in 1945.

 In May of 1986 the fifth annual Wisconsin Labor History Society Conference brought together more than a100 current and retired union leaders, activists, teachers, and labor historians. Five veterans who led organizing efforts in the 1930s explained why their organizing drives succeeded.

 My father and mentor Victor Cooks, who co founded the Racine County Workers Committee in1932, spoke about his experiences in organizing workers. “We depended upon rank and file worker in the shops. We educated them. We got them involved in politics. We made them militant” My dad and other activists in the Workers Committee formed an independent union. After a sit down strike to win recognition the union joined with a federal labor union to form UAW 180. The J.I Case Co. had two large plants in Racine. One built farm machinery and the other built tractors. I worked at both plants in early 1940.

 This movement spread throughout the country and the middle class was formed. All this took place with many sacrifices by the workers. Some struggles for a union resulted in violent police repression in some plants in 1934. The strike at my father’s plant lasted 18 months and the families of the workers sacrificed, but that is part of making changes. The companies hired strike breakers who were fought off by the pickets.

 History as taught in our schools and the media neglect to adequately describe the white and black slavery from colonial days up to the establishment of the union movement. I would suggest that those wanting a true picture of these days of child labor and sweat shops read Howard Zinn’s book on American history; one of a number of books by excellent historians. To get a good picture of those days compare them to labor conditions in China and other Indonesian countries today.

 My father wasn’t a hugger, but took me to labor functions and provided me with books of important authors of those days. The summer before entering High School he enrolled me in a class taught by two University Seniors titled “History you won’t learn in school.” I bring this up to give readers a better understanding of my Iconoclastic views.         

 It breaks my heart to see all the workers benefits fought for by these early forefathers slowly disappear. I consider these men and women more important in forming a real democracy than our over rated Founding Fathers. I’m not going into the working conditions Americans have taken for granted. When their children and grandchildren inherited the middle class standards they went to sleep and became complacent while they starting to lose their middle class status.

 While enjoying the fruits of the 1940s to the 1970s I observed politician’s and corporation’s quest to destroy the union movement. Our complacent Americans, with the use of easy credit closed their eyes to the coming time to pay the Piper.

 I haven’t in this short essay painted all of my experiences during this upheaval of the ruling class, but have watched blue collar Reagan supporters elect a President put into office by a group of multi- millionaires who wanted to lower the top tax rate and eliminate unions. They elected him for two terms and named an airport after him as a tribute to their biggest enemy. I suggest readers reread my blog on Reaganomics.

 George W Bush, a replica of Reagan without his personality, was also given two terms of trickle down economics. My unanswered question is; why do working people and the poor so frequently vote against their own economic self-interests?

In closing, a few words of realism: Congress does little or nothing for the 99% except in a crisis or when they organize and vigilantly  frighten their chances of reelection.



5 responses to “Wisconsin Labor Movement–1930s

  1. Vicki Sue McKinnis

    I had to copy this to put into the Granite Vault both under your “notes” and Grandpa’s. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  2. I love it when you tell stories–please tell us more. It is good to be reminded of where we come from so we can have a better view of where we should be headed.

  3. I appreciate the dedication it took to form the middle class. The breakdown of the middle class is now summed up as the recession, where really the rich have been working to take from the middle class for years and put the money and power into their pockets. It has been a constant battle.

    Victor and the other organizers had a heart for people and a willingness to fight for the rights of the workers. He was also a charismatic person and very smart. Leaders are hard to find, especially those that don’t have their own interests at the forefront. I think the people believed that Obama was going to be that leader, but now that is history. I do think that it will have to begin locally and spread nationally. The national leaders are too interested in their own benefits and place in history to really lead the people.

  4. Luanne — I too appreciate other people who formed the middle class. The first time I went to a 3rd world country I wondered why everyone was so poor and others so rich. When I read your statement today, it clicked how easy it would be to loose the middle class.

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