Wisconsin Wave

Uniting Wisconsinites for democracy and shared prosperity

This is an archived version of the Wisconsin Wave website.

When protesters occupied the Capitol last spring, they followed in the footsteps of demonstrators who seized the building in 1936.

In March of that year, new employees of the federal Works Progress Administration found they could not make a living wage. WPA jobs paid only a fraction of what private businesses paid for the same work, and administrators could not always guarantee a full week's labor. Workers found they simply could not keep body and soul together.

On March 10, 1936, WPA staff in Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan and Green Bay threatened to strike. When that was ignored, they came to Madison and took over the Assembly chamber in the Capitol. Many brought their families, and eventually 184 protesters were camped under the dome.

Like this year's demonstrators, they found local support. Grocers provided discounted food. Gov. Phillip La Follette gave them $30 out of his own pocket.

State lawmakers were adjourned, so the protesters held a mock session of their own, introducing comic bills and sarcastic resolutions. But their intentions were entirely serious.

"Next time the legislators convene, we will be down here with clubs and make them come across with workers' demands," announced their leader. "Bull won't go anymore, because we'll have pick axes to hold over them."

Unfortunately, WPA wages and working conditions were a federal matter rather than a state one. Wisconsin lawmakers could do nothing to solve their problem. After 10 days they departed peacefully, leaving a few of their number behind to clean up.


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