By Stephen Millies
Published Feb 26, 2011 10:46 AM
People around the world, from California to Cairo, are supporting Wisconsin’s workers, who’ve seized their state Capitol building to fight union busting. But this wasn’t the first time people seized the Capitol in Madison.
On Sept. 29, 1969, welfare mothers from Milwaukee, led by Father Jim Groppi and supported by 5,000 University of Wisconsin students, took over the Capitol. They held it for 11 hours and chased out the state legislators.
This was a struggle against welfare cuts. Racist politicians wanted to cut out the winter clothing allowance so that poor people would be driven out of the state or freeze to death.
Among the state assemblymen chased out was future governor, Tommy Thompson, who took his revenge on poor people by abolishing welfare in the 1990s. Thompson and a majority of the state assembly had Groppi convicted of contempt and sentenced to jail without even allowing a legal defense. The U.S. Supreme Court later threw out Groppi’s conviction.
Activists are proud that Wisconsin enacted the first workers compensation law a century ago. The state also passed the first unemployment insurance act in the 1930s.
But as Lloyd Barbee, who led the state’s Civil Rights movement, said, “Wisconsin was progressive just for white people.” Barbee, who died in 2002, was one of the assemblymen who supported the welfare moms in 1969.
Four percent of Black people in prison
One out of every twenty-five African Americans in Wisconsin is incarcerated. That’s four percent of all Black people in the state, from the infant in the incubator to the elder trying to blow out a hundred candles on a birthday cake.
Twelve thousand African Americans are in Wisconsin prisons. Back in 1963, the state had fewer than 3,000 prisoners. The great migration of African Americans didn’t really reach Wisconsin until the 1950s. Even today just six percent of the state’s population is Black. Four percent are Latina/o.
Yet factory after factory in Milwaukee and Racine had large numbers of Black workers. Thousands of African Americans were employed in Milwaukee’s A.O. Smith plant, which made car frames for General Motors.
Mexican workers filled the meatpacking plants in Milwaukee’s Menominee River valley.
Four people were killed in the 1967 rebellion of Milwaukee’s Black community. Only the much larger Detroit and Newark uprisings that year had more casualties.
Even before this revolt, Milwaukee was convulsed by daily demonstrations of the NAACP Youth Council, led by Father Groppi, demanding a law against housing discrimination. Lloyd Barbee helped organize the 1965 boycott of the city’s segregated school system.
Twenty-five thousand people marched down Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee following Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. This march amounted to a Black general strike with close to one-fourth of the African Americans in the city participating in it. This writer remembers the riot police, armed with tear gas launchers, preventing people from crossing the Milwaukee River to the East Side, where the city’s financial district is located.
During this period the Milwaukee chapter of the Black Panther Party grew rapidly. High school students were especially attracted to the Panthers. “The “Milwaukee Three” -- Panther members Booker T. Collins Jr., Jesse Lee White and Earl W. Leverette -- were framed up.
Because of the relatively small size of Wisconsin’s Black community, the ruling class has used the state as a laboratory for reaction. Social services have been cut to the bone. Milwaukee is filled with charter schools.
It was deindustrialization in Milwaukee that allowed capitalists to attack all workers. Plants like A.O. Smith and American Motors were torn down. White and African-American workers were thrown out of union strongholds in Milwaukee, but the Black working class was hurt much more. The result was a big weakening of the labor movement.
Plant shutdowns across Wisconsin have continued with the General Motors plant in Janesville now closed.
Capitalists in Wisconsin are vicious. In 1886 the National Guard killed six Polish-American workers demanding the eight-hour day. In 1898, 2,000 workers in seven woodworking mills in Oshkosh went on strike for 14 weeks.
Three union organizers were arrested for “conspiracy.” They were found innocent after a two-day summation by their attorney, Clarence Darrow. His speech to the court remains a classic defense of workers’ rights.
It took decades to organize Kohler, the big toilet and bathtub maker. This outfit is located in the company town of Kohler, just outside Sheboygan.
Two strikers were killed and 40 others were wounded on July 27, 1934. The National Guard was then called in to finish the job of crushing the strike.
The United Auto Workers finally forced Kohler to sign a contract in 1962 after an eight-year-long strike.
Big capitalists like the Bradley and Greede families founded the John Birch Society, whose headquarters are now in Appleton, Wisc.
As late as 1970, Milwaukee’s huge Allen-Bradley plant refused to hire Black workers. The Bradley Foundation helped finance publication of the “Bell Curve,” a racist manifesto that claims African Americans are inferior.
Destroying a company to fight communism
The Allis-Chambers plant in West Allis -- an industrial suburb of Milwaukee -- was the largest factory in Wisconsin, with nearly 12,000 production workers.
In 1941, the Allis-Chambers workers -- organized in UAW Local 248 -- had to go on strike for 76 days before reaching a settlement. Armored cars were used for the first time against strikers in the United States during this class war.
The leader of these workers was Harold Christoffel, a member of the Socialist Party who was sympathetic to the Communist Party. Christoffel became one of the best known left-wing trade unionists in the U.S. and was elected president of the Milwaukee County Industrial Union Council.
Local 248 became a model of militancy. It was famed for its “flying squad” of militants that would help out on local picket lines. Educational programs were launched within the local to raise the workers’ class consciousness.
Even though the plant only had a few Black workers, Local 248 held meetings in defense of the Scottsboro defendants, young African-American men framed up on a rape charge in Alabama in the 1930s.
Allis-Chambers -- along with the entire capitalist class and government -- wanted to crush these workers. This strikebreaking was supported by the treachery of Walter Reuther, who had just been elected UAW president at the union’s 1946 convention.
Reuther knew that redbaiting wasn't enough to drive communists out of the labor movement. Even some conservative workers would vote for the left in union elections because “reds” were viewed as fighters. What was necessary was to tag communists with a broken strike.
The Allis-Chambers workers stood firm for 11 months. Local plants would be shut down by their workers for a day, so they could join the picket lines. Among them was Seaman Body -- later part of American Motors -- where Al Stergar was then employed. Stergar, who died in 1996, helped found Milwaukee’s branch of Workers World Party.
These strikers should have won five or six victories. Yet the capitalist class -- including its newspapers, its Congress and its Catholic Church -- smashed this strike. What was decisive was the backstabbing by Walter Reuther, a renowned UAW leader who was an anti-communist.
Reuther even had Harold Christoffel and the other leaders of Local 248 expelled from the UAW. Later Christoffel would be sent to jail on federal perjury charges for denying to Congress that he was a member of the Communist Party.
Yet Allis-Chambers never recovered the position that it held in the capitalist economy. Its many competitors took advantage of its nearly year-long absence from the capitalist market to grab customers. After a long slow slide, Allis-Chambers finally went out of business in 1985.
But none of these attacks has stopped Wisconsin’s the multinational working class from fighting back.
The author was a member of Milwaukee’s Workers World Party branch from 1968 to 1978.