The image of a Republican governor and legislators leading the charge to take away collective bargaining rights is getting so burned into the public consciousness that a lot of Wisconsinites might think that Republicans have always been anti-worker, anti-union pawns of out-of-state robber barons.
But that’s not the case.
The Republican Party, founded by anti-slavery radicals, free-soil campaigners and socialist refugees from the European revolutions of 1848, has at many times during its history been more closely aligned with labor than have the Democrats. In fact, it was a Republican governor, working with members of the Socialist Party, who enacted groundbreaking labor law reforms that would inspire national Republicans to secure some of the first great legislative victories of the labor movement.
In 1929 and 1930, as the Great Depression took hold, Wisconsinites feared for their jobs and their communities. They turned increasingly to unions for protection. Unscrupulous bosses pushed back by forcing workers to sign so-called “yellow dog” contracts, which barred workers from joining unions.
In the Wisconsin Legislature, the GOP was the dominant party, holding most of the seats in the Assembly and the Senate. Throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, the minority party was not the Democrats, but the Socialists. When the Depression hit, there were no Democrats in the state Senate, so it fell to Socialists and progressive Republicans to take up the union cause.
A Yale graduate and former banker who sat as a Socialist senator from Milwaukee, Thomas Duncan, used his position as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee to propose a law banning “yellow dog” contracts. He got it passed with solid Republican support and got Republican Gov. Walter Kohler Sr. to sign it. In fact, Duncan and the Republican-Socialist coalition passed so many pieces of pro-labor legislation that The New York Times hailed Wisconsin as a bastion of “advanced labor legislation.”
Those advances influenced the direction of national labor law. A Republican U.S. senator, Nebraska’s George Norris, and a Republican congressman, Fiorello LaGuardia, passed legislation that borrowed from the Wisconsin model to ban yellow-dog contracts, bar federal courts from issuing injunctions against unions engaged in nonviolent organizing efforts and strikes, and affirm the right of workers to join unions.
Duncan eventually left the Legislature to become executive assistant to Republican Gov. Phil La Follette in the 1930s, when Wisconsin Republicans and Socialists continued to work — in the old parties and in the new Progressive Party — to make the state the leading source of pro-labor legislation.
Today, as Wisconsin’s best traditions are under assault, it is easy to fall into the trap of demonizing the Republican Party. And it is certainly true that the founders and defenders of the GOP through most of its history would not recognize what Scott Walker and Scott Fitzgerald have made of the party. But it should be remembered that Wisconsin Republicans were once open to taking the side of working families.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times and the author of a new book, “The ‘S’ Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism.” A celebration of the book’s publication will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa St.