Andrew E. Kersten: All’s Noisy on the Midwestern Front





[Andrew E. Kersten is a professor of U.S. history in the Department of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. His new biography of Clarence Darrow will be published this May by Hill and Wang. He can be reached at kerstena[at]uwgb[dot]edu.]

AS I sit here at my computer, the button I wore today is still on my shirt. It was given to me by the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin organizer on my campus so I could show my solidarity with others who are protesting our newly elected governor’s agenda this afternoon on campus, in Madison, and across the state. It has a picture of Wisconsin’s state capitol building with a question in bold above it: W.T.F? Those who know me know I rarely swear. But really, W.T.F.? There is no other way to put what is going on in this state. W.T.F., like those other great cursing acronyms—S.N.A.F.U. and F.U.B.A.R.—says it all.

In all seriousness, and with tears in my eyes, I am trying to make sense of this, and it’s hard to do.

As a historian of the United States who has written about unions and working people, I know the history. Since last November, I’ve been reading how a Blue state has gone Red. That’s too simplistic and an inaccurate characterization of the past and present. Rather, we need to see Wisconsin as a front in the political and economic war that has swept though our nation. It has a very long history—if only it were new!—in this country and in Wisconsin.

The struggle between the rich and their politicians and the working class was there at the beginning of the state. The first labor union in Wisconsin predated the state’s admission into the union by a year. Wisconsinites were always active partisans in the struggle to shape the political economy. At times, this struggle was peaceful; at other times, it was not. In 1886, while workers in Chicago were fighting for an eight-hour day and in the midst of the Haymarket Massacre, workers outside Milwaukee were staging their own protests for industrial democracy at the Bay View rolling mill. On May 4, 1886, National Guardsmen fired into the crowd of strikers, killing seven....

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