The debate in Madison over union rights has conjured up some terms we haven’t heard in a while. Take “labor peace” for example.
Prof. James Oberly has taught history at UW-Eau Claire since 1983. He says the sometimes bloody union movement in the country began back in the 1880s when private workers fought for 10 hour workdays. At the time, manufacturers were requiring their employees to work 13-14 hour days.
Public employees weren’t allowed to organize until 1959. Wisconsin was the first state that allowed them to do so.
We’ve enjoyed many years of “labor peace.” In return for collective bargaining rights and binding arbitration, public employees have given up the statutory authority to strike.
“I don’t know of any state employee or local employees that have a statutory right to strike,” Oberly notes.
The logic being public employees often provide what are deemed “essential services.” For instance, society may grind to a halt if snowplow drivers refused to go out on the roads or if police officers walked off their jobs.
And then there are teachers. It wasn’t too long ago when public education was often crippled by strikes.
“There were many teacher strikes in this state until the state amended that law to allow binding arbitration as an alternative,” he says. “Instead of hampering one side to say, ‘you can’t strike but you can bargain,’ or the other side…the binding arbitration brings both sides to the table.”
And while public and private sector strikes are far more rare than they used to be, it’s important to remember that the movement to gain labor rights hasn’t been easy.
“The ultimate labor peace is to avoid violence and bloodshed. There were people that died in this state, in Milwaukee, for the right of the 10-hour workday. They were shot down in their factory,” Oberly recalls.
“We don’t want to go back to that.”
Might we be headed to another era lacking “labor peace?” Oberly jokes that historians are good at “predicting the past,”—not the future.