We continue our series on the struggles of teachers and public sector unions in the state of Wisconsin today. As part of a special collaboration between The Real News Network and In These Times magazine for “The Wisconsin Idea,” TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez, Cameron Granadino (TRNN), and Hannah Faris (In These Times) traveled to Wisconsin in the summer of 2021. From Madison to Appleton, they spoke to a range of educators, organizers, scholars, and activists who are fighting to rebuild worker power after the devastating passage of Act 10 in 2011 under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and nearly 50 years after cops, townspeople, and a union-busting school board broke the infamous Hortonville teachers’ strike in 1974. In this interview, recorded in the town of Hortonville, Alvarez sits down with scholars Harvey J. Kaye and Jon Shelton to discuss the historical significance of Act 10, the Wisconsin Uprising, and the Hortonville strike that set the stage for them decades earlier, and to examine how these crucial events fit into the larger historical trajectory of the labor movement and progressive politics in Wisconsin.
Harvey J. Kaye is Professor Emeritus of Democracy & Justice Studies and the Director of the Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay; he is also the author of many books, including Thomas Paine and the Promise of America and Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again. Jon Shelton is Associate Professor and Chair of Democracy and Justice studies at UW Green Bay, and he is the author of Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order.
Additional links/info below…
- Harvey’s Twitter page
- Jon’s Twitter page
- American Federation of Teachers—Wisconsin website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times investigative series: The Wisconsin Idea
- Harvey J. Kaye, Macmillan, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
- Harvey J. Kaye, Zero Books, Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again
- Working People, **Harvey J. Kaye (bonus episode)**
- Jon Shelton, University of Illinois Press, Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order
- Eleni Schirmer, Gender and Education, “When Solidarity Doesn’t Quite Strike: The 1974 Hortonville, Wisconsin Teachers’ Strike and the Rise of Neoliberalism“
- The Jacobin Show, “The Democratic Coalition after Trump and the Fall of Wisconsin“
- Dan Kaufman, Norton Books, The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics
- Michael D. Yates, Monthly Review Press, Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back
- John Nichols, Bold Type Books, Uprising: How Scott Walker Betrayed Wisconsin and Inspired a New Politics of Protest
Permanent links below…
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive at freemusicarchive.org):
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”
Pre-Production: Maximillian Alvarez, Hannah Faris, Alice Herman, Cameron Granadino, Eleni Schirmer (research consultant), John Fleissner (research consultant), John Yaggi (research consultant), Harvey J. Kaye (research consultant), Jon Shelton (research consultant), Adam Mertz (research consultant)
Studio: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino, Stephen Frank, Kayla Rivara, Jules Taylor
The Wisconsin Idea is an independent reporting project of People’s Action Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin and In These Times.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by listeners and supporters like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. If you’re hungry for more worker and labor focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. And please support the work that we’re doing right here at Working People so we can keep growing and keep bringing y’all more important conversations. Leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts and share these episodes on your social media and with your coworkers and friends and family members.
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My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and we’ve got a great episode for y’all today. As you guys heard in our season opener last week, we are kicking off season five of the show with a special series of conversations that I got to record with teachers, organizers, scholars and activists in Wisconsin this past summer as part of our special collaboration between The Real News Network and In These Times. Now, this collaboration is part of the Wisconsin Idea, a limited independent reporting project created by People’s Action Institute, a Citizen Action of Wisconsin, and In These Times.
If you guys haven’t already, you should definitely follow the link in the show notes and check out all of the amazing reporting that In These Times has published for the Wisconsin Idea over the past year, because it is really good and necessary and incredible stuff, including the previous video and podcast series that we put together on farming communities fighting against big agriculture in the factory farming industry in Polk, Burnett, and Crawford counties. But they’ve also published incredibly valuable reports on things like reproductive rights and abortion access in rural Wisconsin, efforts to provide rural internet and the struggles of immigrant farm and dairy workers, and just so much more. Go check it out.
In today’s episode, we continue our second big series for the Wisconsin Idea on teachers and public sector unions fighting to rebuild worker power after the devastating passage of Act 10 in 2011 under Republican Governor Scott Walker, and nearly 50 years after cops, townspeople, and a union busting school board broke the infamous Hortonville teacher strike in 1974.
In last week’s episode, you guys heard that I got to talk to Amanda and Jeff Frankel, two K through 12 educators and AFT organizers who are currently working in the Hortonville public school district where the strike happened nearly 50 years ago. And as you guys also heard, we talked a bit in that episode about the legacy of the Hortonville strike and about what it was like for Amanda and Jeff when Scott Walker and the Republicans declared war on public sector workers in general and educators specifically. You guys may not remember, I had faint memories of this, but it got very ugly in Wisconsin a decade ago. And Amanda and Jeff even talked about their own experience participating in the Wisconsin uprisings, the mass demonstrations that erupted at the state capital and in other parts of the state, which was still to this day one of the largest sustained collective actions in this country’s history.
And these protests were ultimately unsuccessful in stopping Act 10, as we know. And it’s frankly hard to overstate how devastating that loss was and how long-lasting the pain and the anger has been for so many. But if you talk to anyone who was there, it is very clear that being there was a life-changing event, a mass display of solidarity that can never be forgotten. And so in the coming weeks you’re going to hear more interviews that I got to conduct with teachers and organizers who will talk about their own experience fighting against and fighting to recover from Act 10. But before we launch full bore into those interviews, we want to give ourselves and our listeners a fuller picture of the historical significance of Act 10, the Wisconsin uprising, and the Hortonville strike that in a lot of ways set the stage for them decades earlier.
And we also want to take these crucial events and examine how they fit into the larger historical trajectory of Wisconsin itself. A state that, as I said last week, used to be a bellwether of progressive politics and the labor movement in this country. And I cannot tell you guys how grateful I am that while Cameron Granadino, Hannah Ferris, and I were filming in the small town of Hortonville, we were able to meet up with two amazing scholars, friends and comrades who helped us explore all of this and then some. We had a really great and wide ranging and really enlightening conversation. And I’m talking of course about the great Harvey J. Kaye, professor emeritus of Democracy and Justice Studies and the Director of the Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Jon Shelton, associate professor and chair of Democracy and Justice Studies at UW-Green Bay.
Now, Harvey has written more books than I can count. And they’re all so good and so vital. And you guys just need to read all of them. And of course you need to read Jon’s book, Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order. And Working People die-hards will remember Harvey from a great bonus episode that we recorded together… I think it was a couple years ago now. Man, time really flies. Getting old as shit. And you’ll also remember Jon from the livestream fundraiser that we did with Mel Buer of Morning Riot podcast back in December to support striking Kellogg’s workers and their families. And Harvey and Jon are both brilliant scholars who were absolutely instrumental in making this series happen. And I cannot say enough nice things about them. Although, I guess the thing I should say is that I am sorry it took this long to get the amazing conversation that we recorded in the summer ready to go, because Harvey has been giving me shit for it for months and he’s been teasing me about the delay. And I got to say, I deserve it.
So sorry again, Harvey, sorry, Jon. But at long last, I could not be more excited to finally share our conversation with the world. And I think you guys are really going to get a lot out of it because I sure as hell did. So here it is, without further ado or further delay. This is me talking with professors Harvey J. Kaye and Jon Shelton about the 1974 Hortonville teacher strike, Act 10, and what the fuck happened to Wisconsin and America.
Harvey J. Kaye: I’m Harvey Kaye. I’m professor emeritus of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. And I’m also the author of a number of books. The more recent ones are Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great, and most recent in that vein is Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again. I’m also a member of the retiree council of the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers, and one of the co-founders many years ago of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, which I’m very proud to say is decidedly a labor organization and academic organization.
Jon Shelton: I’m Jon Shelton. I am associate professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at UW-Green Bay. I’m the author of Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order, and the forthcoming book The Rise and Fall of the Human Capital Myth. I also serve on the board of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. And I am a proud member of UW-Green Bay United, my local union, and vice president of higher education for AFT Wisconsin.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, gents, thank you both so much for meeting us here in Hortonville, Wisconsin. As part of our big Real News Collaboration with In These Times Magazine for the Wisconsin Idea, which will dig into the significance of the Wisconsin Idea as such, but really, this is a big expansive collaborative project based on exploring the changing politics, economics, and digging into the history of rural Wisconsin. And also trying to place that within the broader political history of the state itself, try to think about, I think, what the larger headline for this investigation is, is what the fuck happened to Wisconsin? What the fuck happened to the labor movement? What the fuck happened to progressive politics in the United States? And Wisconsin in many ways is the epicenter, is the site where we need to start this investigation.
So as I mentioned, we are sitting here in Hortonville, Wisconsin, the site of one of the most famous strikes of any sort in the state, but definitely one of the most famous teacher strikes in Wisconsin, which happened where we are sitting in 1974, where over 80 teachers were fired by the school board after they reached an impasse with the school board. They had tried multiple times to file referendums with the city to expand the school system because teachers were complaining about overcrowding, they were complaining about heavy workloads as you had more suburban overflow from Appleton, the economy there, a nearby town, was changing. You had increasing demographic pressures in this school district. A lot of that was falling on the teachers who were here who needed a more school capacity and weren’t getting it approved by the board and even the townspeople were voting against it.
Then when contract negotiations came up, the teachers could not make an inch of progress with the school board. Ended up authorizing a strike in 1974, early January, I think in February of 1974, ended up going on strike in March, were all fired. And the strike itself left a really, I think, deep wound on this community because things got really fucking ugly. And I think a lot of historians have asked the question, teachers and school boards being at loggerheads at this time was not uncommon. I mean, Wisconsin was the first state to grant public sector bargaining rights, or bargaining rights for public sector workers. And in the period leading up to the Hortonville strike, you had a lot of teachers negotiating with their school boards, forming unions, and really advancing their rights in the workplace. But something different happened in Hortonville that really, I think, tells us a lot about the changing trajectory, political trajectory of the state itself, and also was in a lot of ways a harbinger of what was to come decades later with Act 10, with right-to-work, so on and so forth.
So I’m going to leave a lot of this to the esteemed historians at the table. But I wanted to have us maybe start where we are and talk a little bit for viewers and listeners about the Hortonville strike and its significance in the larger history that you two have spent your whole career studying in a lot of ways. So I guess, could we go around the table, Harvey and Jon, talking about just what else we need to give people watching for context to understand the Hortonville strike itself, what led to it, and why it was so significant.
Jon Shelton: Yeah. And I just want to say, Max, I mean, this is such an important conversation to be having. I think you frame this exactly the right way. I mean, Wisconsin, it’s American politics writ small. I mean, we’ve got two pretty big cities which are increasingly becoming more and more democratic. But we also have, especially in Milwaukee, a deep level of racism which leads to a lot of working class African-Americans and Latinos to not necessarily participate in electoral politics the way that other constituencies in different parts of the state do. But we have an increasingly conservative rural constituency and the suburbs are I think up for grabs in some ways. That was really what swung the election for Biden, actually, in 2020. But to go back to Hortonville, I think you’re dead on to say that this connects to some of these deeper political fissures.
I think you had the narrative down really well. One of the things I would add to that is that the loggerheads in Hortonville were really also about this growing urban and rural divide that was happening in Wisconsin and happening in the country. So before the 1970s a lot of rural people were Democrats. You had more or less a coalition that had elected Democrats to office – And Harvey might want to talk more about this – But in a state that had traditionally been Republican. I mean, Republican parties formed in Wisconsin in the 1850s and so most voters tended to vote Republican. There’s a shift in the mid 20th century, and a lot of that is because of Democrats both nationally and in Wisconsin being able to speak to rural constituencies. Part of that changes in the 1970s for a variety of reasons.
But there are big things happening to farmers. I mean, the consolidation of agribusiness is starting there. Some of the bigger economic trends connect to property taxes. And so rural people in particular are really worried about escalating property taxes at the same time that you have very volatile farm prices. And there’s a lot of things you could talk about in the big picture agricultural stuff that I’m not an expert on so I can’t get too much into that stuff. But as you mentioned, I talk about this in my book. There are a lot of really contentious teacher labor conflicts in the ’70s, but the one that happens in Hortonville is a little bit different because the teaching force is quite small and you have got this big consolidated school district. Many of the parents are rural people.
And so they feel like some of the things teachers are asking for, rightly in my opinion, lower class sizes, higher salaries at a time when you have inflation undercutting the buying power of a lot of working people, they’re worried about the effect that’s going to have on property taxes. And they’re worried about their own economic livelihoods and that, I’m sure will get more into this, but that’s a conflict that really just continues. And nobody, I think at least on the Democratic side of things, really solves that conflict. And there are some really important roots there in Hortonville in 1974 that we can talk about when we get to say Act 10 and the way Scott Walker was able to create resentment between different working people in the state.
Harvey J. Kaye: This was a community. And that’s how they viewed themselves, no doubt. And they probably imagined that over time they’d work things out. However, if you’re a teacher with a low salary and your fellow teachers and you’re together, you know that working it out over time could mean that nothing ever gets resolved. So the pressure builds, the action is taken. And let’s not forget, there had been successful teacher actions prior to this, so it made the teachers feel maybe all the more confident. And maybe because it was a community, that if they really did express their anxieties and their fears and their worries about how to make a living themselves that it might resonate in the community. I don’t actually know what the average wage or salary in this town was. It’s not far from Appleton. It’s quite possible that some people were involved in their links to agriculture out to the West.
Others may have been well linked into the paper mills of the Fox Valley. And those salaries, relatively speaking, were good and the benefits were good. But it’s still the case where how many people really understand what it means, class size? I mean, even now, who knows that kind of stuff? So anyhow, but what really seems to change is the fact that it left the community. It left the community. So the state WEAC, Wisconsin Education Association gets involved as it rightly should. It’s called solidarity. The association of… What’s it called? Help me out. The school board. The ASB.
Jon Shelton: Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
Harvey J. Kaye: The Wisconsin Association of School Boards, they get involved. It’s now becoming a state issue. Now, once it becomes a state issue, what it means is that this divide that Jon referred to between urban and rural becomes all the more accentuated in people’s imaginations. And the president of WEAC at that time knew what solidarity was about. She was an African-American leader from Milwaukee. And I’m speaking off the top of my head here, but it also then brought in what was also very much in the minds of Americans in the late ’60s into the ’70s was perhaps the race question. In other words, this is outsiders coming in and making these demands. And at a certain point, it seemed as if the state itself had failed, obviously, because it didn’t have the proper arrangements to mediate and arbitrate this kind of dispute. But it is the case that in the end the teachers got screwed, just outright got screwed.
Now, there’s more to the story. But eventually we’ll talk, I hope, about how it links into the story of Wisconsin itself. Because as Jon mentioned this was a Republican state. The Republican Party was founded here in Ripon, Wisconsin, which by the way is maybe 30 miles. Not far at all. In fact, I may be wrong. It may be 20 miles from here to the south, 30 miles at the most. But what I want to make clear in case people don’t realize this, that was a Republican Party which was filled with what we today would call liberals, progressives, and radicals. So that was a signal of what this state might well become. Anti-slavery back in the 1850s, very much progressive in mind. There were even perhaps links between these folks here in Central and Eastern Wisconsin and German Americans in Milwaukee who were already themselves moving in what we would think of as the socialist direction. They had links clearly back to Germany itself. I mean, it was the 1848 revolution that led so many German workers and intellectuals to come over. And this became the German-American state.
And if I just sidebar that, I do want to point out one of the reasons that those Germans were so eager, perhaps, to come to America was not only the promise. It’s that their primary work on America was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Rights of Man. And when they came here, rural communities and Milwaukee groups themselves built around the Turner Halls, these working men’s and women’s associations, they would have annual Thomas Paine parties to celebrate the radicalism in Paine and the promise of America. So I know this seems remote from Hortonville, but it really is the case that there is a dynamic underway in Wisconsin that the Hortonville strike seems to be so alien to. Having said that, this is also the state that sent McCarthy, Joe McCarthy, to the Senate, and Joe McCarthy is buried in the town of Appleton that we just referred to.
Jon Shelton: Very beautiful grave site, actually. I’m serious. It’s right next to the river. I mean, it’s really a beautiful grave site, which is an interesting irony. But I wanted to add one other thing because I think 1974 is important. And what’s so important about that year is the bigger political context. If the Hortonville strike, if we could parachute it out of 1974 and put it in 1968 or ’69, there’s no way the outcome would’ve been the same. Because the 1970s was the decade in which all of the basic assumptions about how to make working people’s lives better, they were up in the air. We still didn’t have the kind of neoliberal ascendancy that would come later. But a lot of those big fundamental premises that I know Harvey will talk more about stemming from FDR and the New Deal and the idea that you can do something for workers in both the private sector and the public sector. That it’s not a competition between workers. You can do things for all workers.
Even with all of the contradictions of the postwar era, the racism that existed and the fact that not everybody benefited equally from the New Deal. Everybody did benefit from the New Deal and the New Deal order, almost to a constituency. And so those ideas are driving policy. They’re driving the labor law that’s created for private sector workers in the 1930s. They’re driving the policies that lead states like Wisconsin – Which by the way, and just a quick correction, you said that Wisconsin was the first state to give workers the right to collectively bargain. Workers pushed for that right. That came because of the strength of the public sector labor movement in the state, that happens in 1959. And that happens in states across the country, after that in the 1960s and to a lesser extent in the early ’70s.
And so there really is this expectation that government and unions together can make, I don’t want to overstate things, but this broad expectation that they can make workers’ lives better. And it’s only when you get to the ’70s, – And there’s a lot of things we could talk about here – But it’s only really when you get to the ’70s that those basic assumptions are questions. And so the idea that you would have teachers and workers, other private sector workers, many of whom, as Harvey intimated, are in unions. They’re working in local industries here. They’re not all farmers. That you would have them at loggerheads with each other just doesn’t make sense until you get to that moment when all of these big social democratic imperatives are under duress.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I mean, correction very much well placed. No systemic advances in the lives of working people in the labor movement writ large have ever been given, they’ve always been won. I think that is a really, really important point to make. And I want us to, in a moment, look backwards and talk about those larger political tectonic shifts that really set up the milieu in Wisconsin in the decades preceding Hortonville and what that break in the ’70s really was, where it came from, what it represented. Because even beyond that, if we’re thinking in the political economy of the United States writ large, the ’70s was not a great time. I mean, there was a lot of political strife coming out of the radicalism of the ’60s, there was a lot of loss of faith in the political establishment with Nixon and Vietnam, there was also a really baffling economic phenomenon of, what was it, stagflation as they call it. So thus bringing out people’s anxieties about property values, so on and so forth.
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah. I mean, what you were saying about the situation in the ’70s or leading into the heart of the ’70s is absolutely true. But there’s one thing we should not forget, and that is that American industry capitalists are experiencing, as are the British and others, a profit squeeze. Japanese and German industries have revived, the automobile industries are in competition now, other industries as well, steel, et cetera. So basically, corporate executives have to figure out a way to lower their costs in order to lower their prices.
What do they do? Well, they look to cut their labor costs and their taxes, which means they’re going to target workers and citizens as a consequence. And I’ll just add a note to that, we don’t need to go into it in detail, we shouldn’t forget that working people don’t get to vote on their wages. The only thing they get to vote on are their taxes. So if politicians appear as part of a sustained movement, the new right becomes neoliberalism, it really is the case that they’re going to vote to lower their taxes. They don’t want to reduce the quality of education. They don’t want to lose their home. They’re going to vote to lower their taxes.
Jon Shelton: Yeah. And a couple things I would add to that, number one, Adam Mertz, who’s a historian who’s written a tremendous dissertation on the history of Wisconsin, points out that one of the reasons that agricultural people felt so squeezed in the ’70s is because business in conjunction with organized labor supported this manufacturing tax credit which essentially came at the expense of agricultural property. And so it was to really to deal with a lot of the things Harvey was talking about, but this is a moment Adam argues, and I think he’s a 100% right on this, that Democrats supporting this tax credit at state level really don’t have a lot to offer rural people and aren’t really sensitive to what their needs are and what they’re going through. The other thing I would add in terms of the corporate attack in the early ’70s on unions and lowering taxes, which there’s a lot we could talk about in terms of the anti-union stuff in the ’70s, but this is ideological. There’s an ideological component to it. So Louis Powell, who very soon after doing this… He writes this for the chamber of commerce, very soon after Nixon actually elevates him to the Supreme court. When was that? ’71?
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah, ’71.
Jon Shelton: In ’71, writes this memo where he effectively says corporations haven’t really been that politically involved. Now they need to get involved. They need to do something to change the laws, to make it more difficult for workers to organize, to lower taxes. And it’s hard to not to see what happens in ’74 with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, that kind of management strategy through that prism. I mean, employers of all stripes are talking to each other, and this is very much an anti-employee moment in the 1970s for those reasons.
Harvey J. Kaye: And in fact, just a few years later… In fact, it was probably at a meeting held at the very same time the teachers were on strike here in Hortonville. There’s an organization, as soon as you say these two words everyone thinks you’re talking conspiracy theory. There was absolutely nothing conspiratorial about it. They were open about it. They even published their proceedings, the Trilateral Commission that was organized at the top by David Rockefeller of the Rockefeller family and Chase Manhattan bank, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, a professor who went on to become a secretary of state for Carter. And not surprisingly, Carter himself was a member of the Trilateral Commission.
But it was Republicans and Democrats who were not necessarily at that moment office holders. As well as corporate executives from the Tri referred to Western Europe, Japan, and the United States. And they issued their report in ’75, New York University press published it, it’s readily available. It’s titled “The Crisis of Democracy.” And the section on the United States which is authored by Samuel P. Huntington I believe it is, was professor of Government at Harvard, made it very clear that the problem of democracy was that there was too much democracy. To use their words, an excess of democracy. And they actually named their antagonists in this report. It’s astounding. They said basically public employee unions.
Jon Shelton: Young people and people of color.
Harvey J. Kaye: Young people, people of color, poor, those who were making demands on government that were unprecedented. I think they even referred to the women’s movement, and of course they added in for good measure the liberal media and what they called value-oriented intellectuals, AKA humanities and social science professors. So this report was issued. Now, another member of this commission was George Bush. The senior, George HW Bush, is right? Not George [crosstalk] right. So then let’s figure it out. One becomes president sooner, that’s Carter, and the other one becomes vice president under Reagan in spite of the fact that he had told everyone that Reagan was preaching voodoo economics.
Reagan was basically probably reaching out to the Trilateral Commission when he brought the Bush guy on. So anyhow, I mean, this is a time in which people are actually targeting, across the board, democratic forces, small D democratic forces. But let’s also remember that this is not specifically Republicans doing it. This is Republicans and Democrats. I mean, Jimmy Carter in 1980, 78, sorry, in 1978, turned his back on the very people who helped elect him to office, labor, the environmentalists, and the consumer rights people.
Jon Shelton: Yeah. So we were joking when we were leading up to this that we were going to talk about the Trilateral Commission and “The Crisis of Democracy.” So I’m glad we did. But it does sound conspiratorial. But like, I’ve actually taught this in my classes, and I just bring up the document and I show it to students and I’m like, this is what they were saying and this guy became this big part of Carter’s administration, secretary of state?
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah, secretary of state.
Jon Shelton: And it’s right here. And their jaws just drop. Because it’s so out there. And this really is the moment. This really is the moment where that’s happening. And as far as the Democrats go, I would be a little more charitable and say… And I totally agree with you about Carter, you know that. But it’s not all Democrats. I mean, like Ted Kennedy is still pushing hard for a social democratic alternative. Things would’ve been, I think, very interesting had Ted Kennedy won the presidency in say ’76 or even ’80 when he ran against Carter. Or Hubert Humphrey was one of the big major contenders in ’76.
So there’s really this internal struggle in the Democratic Party. And by the way, one of those people who’s allied with Carter is Joe Biden, who’s a first term Senator in ’72. [crosstalk] ’72. And the way he talks about things like a jobs guarantee is like, we got to get these big ideas out of our heads and be more limited, and it’s basically saying the era of big government is over before Clinton infamously says that in 1996, so.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I mean, so I think this is phenomenal macro context for what happened here in ’74. So to bring it back down to eye level, again, where we’re sitting and have folks understand how all these big and small forces in effect did converge on a small town like Hortonville even if they weren’t directly implicated in it. But I mean, I mentioned the intransigence of the school board here in Hortonville. The school board that took that very uncommon step to fire 84 striking teachers, where other school districts where teachers had authorized strikes got a contract. There was a notorious union busting law firm from Madison that was advising the school board here in Hortonville which was largely comprised of small business owners and local business elites, as they were described at the time.
So in a way it was like they were taking a stand against what they saw as this threat of public sector employees, who we would be remiss not to mention that it was a largely feminized workforce, as Eleni Schirmer writes in her brilliant dissertation, and Eleni and Adam Mertz have both been phenomenal consultants for us on this big project, and we love them and everyone should go check out their work. But Eleni talks about this a lot too, how even in Hortonville, or especially in somewhere like Hortonville – And Harvey, you were talking about this – If we’re trying to think of why things went the way that they did, why this became such a lightning rod for these larger cultural, political, and economic resentments. I think that one of the really important points to note is Hortonville as an expansive school district, like you talked about, Jon, that incorporated students from outside of Hortonville proper.
And the more that there was expansion from Appleton into that district, the more students you got, so on and so forth. Therein lies the increased pressures on teachers at the time and their demands for more school buildings, so on and so forth. But one fact that really stood out to me is that at the time of the strike in 1974, I believe it was three fourths of the teachers in the district did not live in Hortonville proper. And so there was this split between the more conservative townsfolk and the farmers in the periphery of the town and the teachers. Again, largely women, public sector, I think one of the only if not the only unionized workforce in the town at the time. And so there was like… I think one thing that I’ve seen in the history is that the more the strike wore on, the more that that division became pronounced, the more that people pushed on it as a reason to justify their hostilities towards one another.
And just to give viewers just a little bit more of a context there, I wanted to ask you guys both about the fact that even for the teachers who did live here, even if they were living just like a couple miles out had been in the community for a long time, there was something about being public sector, being unionized, being a largely women-based workforce that coded teachers as outsiders, as outside of the community. And that became really pronounced when the strike, after the strike had already kicked off spring break happened in Wisconsin. And so you had a lot of teachers from around the state busing in to support the striking teachers here in Hortonville. I think it was over 500 who ended up coming in that period. Therein catalyzing towns people’s fears about outside agitators. About this being something, a labor movement, a political radicalism that was being imposed on that community that people identified with like you were talking about, Harvey.
Harvey J. Kaye: That’s a great question. And it’s a great question because, if we haven’t mentioned it already, it instigated the formation of a force known as the vigilantes. Let’s remember that the school board decided to hire scabs. They were going to bring in folks who were not necessarily qualified to be in the classroom according to codes and regulations. But this was to make their way maybe with the idea that we’ll get through the rest of the school year with these folks. But it’s also the case that the unionist turned out, especially the folks who would come in from out of town. The word scab was thrown about, there was harassment, it’s noted, but that brings in these vigilantes. Hell of a word, vigilantes. You know what that implies? I mean, it’s the ugliest of images. Correct?
And so at that point you can pretty much write it off at that point in terms of the teachers winning against this school board. They’re not going to give way. Because if they give way, they themselves have to answer to the vigilantes, perhaps. But I don’t personally think I can speak to the divide between the teachers who are living in town and out of town, because if they were living out town they were probably living either themselves rurally or they were living over towards Appleton, which is not a big city. It’s a small city. I mean, for those of us from larger cities, when I came out to Wisconsin it struck me as an oversized town, quite frankly. So I don’t know to what extent that divide occurred. But it definitely must have been paramount in the minds of people when 500 teachers are bused in and there are only how many teachers in the entire school system did we say?
Jon Shelton: I think it [crosstalk] Well, no. I think there were about 100 in the school but I think it was 85 who were fired and replaced? I can’t remember. There’s different –
Maximillian Alvarez: I believe, yeah. I’ve seen 82 and 84 but I believe there’s [crosstalk].
Harvey J. Kaye: – 500 people bused themselves in here. Even if they were 500 high school kids, this town would notice it. So that divide would’ve been paramount in their minds. Made all the more if… I don’t know if they all came out of Milwaukee and Madison, if they might have come down from Green Bay, I don’t know. But in any case, people in Hortonville might well have seen Green Bay as a big city even though it’s not.
Jon Shelton: So I can tell you, I think there are some more specific things to say about this and I’ll say that in a minute, but I want to say something else that I don’t want to lose sight of. So, my research is on teacher unions and I study a number of very contentious strikes in the ’70s. Most of them are urban. So I study New York City, I study Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Newark, New Jersey. These were extremely contentious fights. In Newark in 1971, teachers were on strike for about 12 weeks. You had these, they weren’t called vigilantes, but they were sort of like vigilante forces led by these Italian ethnics. The guy leading that was a guy named Tony Imperiale. And the African American community there had these Black power advocates led by Mary Baracka, really wanted the schools to stay open.
And you had these sort of gangs that were fighting it out in the streets. Ethnic gangs. I’m not saying Baraka was a gang member, I’m just saying you had quasi supporters. And so that level of violence, you didn’t see anything like that in Hortonville necessarily, obviously. But the teachers, they didn’t quite win that strike, but they weren’t fired and replaced and the reason is because there were thousands of them. So one of the things that makes Hortonville unique is that there were under a hundred teachers. You could effectively fire and replace them. You couldn’t do that really in a lot of other places. The school district had to be small enough that you could practically do that, and Hortonville was.
So I just wanted to mention that. There’s that piece of this that makes it exceptional. But the thing to remember, remember we talked about public sector workers getting bargaining rights, winning bargaining rights in Wisconsin. Well, it’s not a surprise that those employees who are advocating for that, those workers were based in Milwaukee. So, public sector workers, they organize first in bigger urban areas. So they do have that connotation of being urban. And that’s exacerbated, I think, for some of the things Harvey was talking about, having literally people come from out of town. I don’t think it’s a surprise at all that Lori Wynn, who is the first African American president of WEAC is leading the strike, that definitely matters. And so –
Maximillian Alvarez: I think she was hit by a car too, wasn’t she? I believe I saw a detail in an article about this that when she was on the picket line, she was one of the ones targeted by people passing by in the cars.
Jon Shelton: Yeah. I think that’s right. I don’t recall that but that sounds like something that definitely could have happened. And so, you have rural people and other working people. Some of whom, again, may have lived in Hortonville or around there but worked at a unionized light industry that was in the area who might have seen public sector workers as urban and not part of the way of life here. And I think there probably should be some more scholarship done on this, but Kathryn Cramer, who’s an ethnographer who wrote this book, The Politics of Resentment.
She looked at this in the 20-teens and definitely pointed out that a lot of conservative rural people, Walker supporters, basically saw public employees, even teachers who taught in their schools, saw them as urban and would say things about public employees as supporting urban interests even when they were teachers in rural districts. So I think it’s reasonable to project that backward and say that the genesis of that, or at least some vestige of that, was there in the 1970s.
Harvey J. Kaye: I’m going to say something you can edit out if you want. The Packers weren’t doing very well in those years which would not have helped the mood of the day. And I –
Jon Shelton: Especially in the spring.
Harvey J. Kaye: And I actually say – I know it sounds like a joke, but I can tell you when I came to Wisconsin in ’77, ’78. I think it was ’77, ’78. If the Packers lost on a Sunday, my big lecture course on the Monday was the flattest imaginable. Students were literally drained of any kind of spirit. Now I’m just saying, okay, again, you can do what you want with that.
Jon Shelton: Okay. But then Act 10 happens after the Packers win the Super Bowl. So just saying to literally the –
Harvey J. Kaye: But the election occurred before. Before we were [crosstalk] let me make that very clear.
Maximillian Alvarez: There now officially needs to be a political history that is traced along the lines of the Packers winning or losing across the years.
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah, quite possibly. I had a more serious point to make. I got to recall what it was, wait a second. Well, one thing I want to point out is that, speaking of ironies, is that even as Milwaukee is seeing these kinds of progressive developments, unionization of teachers, collective bargaining, and so on. It’s also the case that the most reactionary, one of the most reactionary corporate figures is in Milwaukee. Harry Bradley, headed the Allen Bradley corporation. Okay. I mean, utterly reactionary. And he sets up… In fact, was it in ’74 that they founded the Bradley foundation?
Jon Shelton: It was. It wasn’t until I think they sold Allen Bradley that they got basically this huge financial windfall that then turned it into, it was basically a philanthropic organization before I think the mid ’80s maybe.
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah. But I have little doubt when… I mean, he fought unionization. He was utterly hostile to it. So, you’ve got this revving up of these right-wing forces that… He had plenty of money. The foundation would gain the greater sum of money when they sell.
Jon Shelton: Yeah. And actually this PhD from a couple years ago named Matt Rider is somebody who’s actually written about this conservative, ramping up of these conservative movements. And really, he actually goes back to the ’50s. It’s a tremendous dissertation. I don’t know where he is but he needs to get that into a book soon. [crosstalk].
Harvey J. Kaye: And one other, just as a footnote to all this, Paul Weyrich – If I’m pronouncing it properly – Who was literally one of the architects of the New Right. He is from the Racine, Kaukauna area in the Southeastern part of the state.
Jon Shelton: In Kenosha.
Harvey J. Kaye: Kenosha.
Jon Shelton: Kaukauna is up here.
Harvey J. Kaye: Did I say Kaukauna? I apologize, Kenosha. Shame on me. Don’t include the shame on me in the –
Maximillian Alvarez: Well I mean, I’m glad you brought it up because this is a name that’s come up in a number of interviews or even just talks that we’ve had with people as we’ve been doing this big collaboration between In These Times and The Real News is the Bradley foundation. And I think it’s something that a lot of people outside of the state, myself included, did not really know or appreciate the size of the influence of this foundation and this larger arrayed network of right-wing forces that I think I want us to have a good amount of time to dig into. But I guess just a spark notes description for people watching is like, we know about the Koch brothers. We know about the Koch foundation and so on and so forth and all their tentacles into the political establishment. Bradley foundation is that in Wisconsin a lot of ways, if not more so –
Harvey J. Kaye: Nationally.
Maximillian Alvarez: Nationally even now. So, in terms of talking about… Because I think that’ll be a good way to talk about our march towards Act 10 and Walker. But I wanted to, actually, before we get there, turn back a bit. Because another part of this, before we talk about the right-wing backlash and the cultural backlash that we’ve been describing as it happened in Hortonville, how Hortonville became the site where a lot of those larger political forces that you two described so brilliantly came to a head. I think it’s important to ask, in deeper context, what they were responding to? What was being backlashed against? Because one of the things that I really hope comes across to people, not only for the videos that we’re producing, the podcasts and the articles that we’re producing for The Real News and In These Times, but the larger Wisconsin Idea that is being run by In These Times. The larger series.
There’s so much there that testifies to the fact that Wisconsin, as we said at the very top of this, was the bellwether of the labor movement after World War II. It has a really central place in progressive politics, even far beyond that. So I wanted to ask if we could fill that in for people who are watching and listening right now, leading up to the increased labor militancy and organization in the ’60s and leading up to the ’70s. Can we give some background to the real deep, progressive history in this state? Including in rural areas.
Jon Shelton: I’m going to take my glasses off for this one.
Speaker 1: All right. Hold on. Sorry. Let’s cut for a moment here because the battery’s running low. I just want to put in some new batteries. [crosstalk]
Harvey J. Kaye: [crosstalk] oh yeah. No. Think about the things we should be covering in terms of the story. [crosstalk] Yeah, no, the La Follette story in itself is worth knowing. Even to the point that in 1936, there about FDR turned his back on the Democrats in the state and basically embraced the progressive Republicans because of the La Follettes. Robert La Follette senior is now Robert Paul Jr. in the ’30s.
Jon Shelton: And who had the weird Nazi symbol, is that Phillip?
Harvey J. Kaye: That’s Phillip in the 1940 election. I think when the record was covered, he came up with this symbol.
Jon Shelton: It was a third party right? The Progressive Party.
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah. Yeah.
Jon Shelton: And he came up with his own symbol and it was like –
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah, it was like three legs. It’s a thing you’d expect a TV producer to create in order not to have put a swastika on.
Jon Shelton: Right.
Harvey J. Kaye: By the way, for what it’s worth, what really cost La Follettes is they were against… Just as he was against World War I, they were against American involvement in World War II. And so in ’44 he loses the Senate race. I don’t know, the brother just disappeared I think.
Jon Shelton: Loses to McCarthy, right?
Speaker 1: Yes. So we’re all focused and recording.
Harvey J. Kaye: [crosstalk]
Jon Shelton: I think so. Wow.
Maximillian Alvarez: So I guess like after my long question, whoever wants to pick up. Cam says that we’re focused, I’m recording. So whenever you guys are ready.
Harvey J. Kaye: Okay. So –
Speaker 2: [inaudible] Oh yeah.
Harvey J. Kaye: The Wisconsin Idea, for those of us who are in the university system, comes out of the university system. But it actually doesn’t, it comes out of the Wisconsin political world. The Republicans are, as I said before, they’re an almost radical party, they’re progressives, they’re into slavery. And the Republican Party in the state is just that. However. However, by the end of the century there are those who come to see the party as corrupt. Okay. They’re too closely tied to corporate interests or railway interests, I guess, in particular. And one of the rising figures in the party is Robert La Follette, who will later be Robert La Follette Sr. And he essentially breaks with the party. I mean, he’s a progressive Republican. He’s identified in that way. And I’m going to hand off to you because I think it would be important to talk about how that fits in with the socialist emergent and well, I’ll leave it to you.
Jon Shelton: Yeah. So, I mean, La Follette cuts his political teeth, actually, going after railroad monopolies. And so this is a milieu in the late 19th century where you’ve got labor radicalism, 1886, you’ve got this massive fight for the eight hour a day. Probably a lot of the people watching this know about Haymarket square, which is the kind of most famous iteration of it. But there were efforts other places but especially in the Midwest in April and May of 1886 to fight for an eight hour day, Milwaukee was one of those. So, there’s this pretty significant labor conflict at Bayview where the national or the militia – Not the national guard yet – But the militia fires on workers and kills a handful of them. And should we wait for this to…
Okay. And so though there’s this initial defeat, you have a lot of politicians who represent workers. There’s a Working Men’s Party, actually, that comes out of that defeat in 1886, they win local elections. And so there’s a trajectory there between these Working Men’s candidates, which, Wisconsin isn’t the only place that has them, but that are getting involved in local politics. That carries over into the late 19th century…. Into the early 20th century, I should say. And so, you have this milieu in the early 20th century, whereas Harvey mentioned you’ve got radical Republicans like La Follette, you also have the emergence of the Socialist Party, particularly in Milwaukee, you’ve got the first socialist mayor elected in 1910, Emil Seidel, who’s a staunch advocate for workers.
And then, this university iteration of this is you have a lot of academics who are trying to study the labor problem. Like, I teach courses on labor history, and one of the things that I tell my students is that between 1877 and the 1930s, 1940s, the central problem in American politics is labor. And it’s not because academics like me want to think about this, it’s because there were people literally fighting it out on the streets. You had corporations that were heavily involved in the political process and stifling reform. And you’ve got those big conflicts like in Bayview in 1886, but there’s tons of those all across the country. I mean, Pullman 1894, homestead strike 1892, the Ludlow massacre in the 19-teens. So this is the sort of central problem.
Well, you have these labor academics, and many of them are centered in Wisconsin. So people like Richard T. Ely, who’s an economist who’s studying the labor problem. And this right-wing region tries to prevent him from, or tries to actually get him fired from the university. This is before the days of tenure. And the regents effectively stand up for Ely and say, no, he should be allowed to study labor conditions and actually follow. The language that they use is the pursuit of truth. And La Follette is very much connected to the University of Wisconsin where you have this president named John Bascom, he’s the one who coins the Wisconsin Idea, right? Bascom?
Harvey J. Kaye: It’s pretty much his idea. I don’t know if the words are his because I think there’s some evidence of prior terms.
Jon Shelton: Right. So, and then you’ve got John Commons, who’s this labor economist who puts forward things like… Or is instrumental in pushing for things like workers compensation, which then comes from Wisconsin onto this national level. And so you have this confluence between the political problem of capitalism, the political problem for workers, and the university which is attempting to… Not everybody’s involved in this. But a lot of the faculty are engaged and doing something about this question to deal with this problem, to ameliorate this problem. And that really becomes central to this notion that the university should serve all of the citizens in the state in a public focused way that will help them to solve the contemporary problems that they’re facing.
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah. I’m going to sidebar, because In These Times magazine is part of this. In the early 1900s, around 1910, there was an organizer for the Socialist Party here in Northeast Wisconsin. Appleton, Green Bay, the cities over on the lake shore. His name was Carl Sandburg, the great American poet, maybe one of the best top five American poets. I could even say three, but that’s my opinion. And it’s that same Sandburg who becomes the secretary, capital S Secretary to Seidel, I’m pretty sure, down in Milwaukee. He’s already a socialist. It makes sense. And then he moves from Milwaukee and he goes to Chicago where of course his poetry is celebrated. What is it? The City of Big Shoulders, I guess it is. So that’s my gift to Chicago. That note.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and Sandburg makes a small appearance, even in the academic research that I did way back when, because he ended up meeting this Soviet emissary in Western Europe to deliver him Lenin’s letter to American workers to bring to the United States and get it published. He also gave him a sizable check that was seized at customs, but he was able to publish that letter to American workers in the United States.
Harvey J. Kaye: And I would also add, he marries a Wisconsin girl whose name I’m forgetting right now, but it’s her husband who becomes one of the great photographers in the United States in the 20th century. Now I’m embarrassed. You know it. No, that’s earlier. This is later. They did work together, actually, later, but shame on me. You guys talk on.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I think that I wanted to also link that to the rural question. Because I mean, we’re going to get to this in a second. But as I think you mentioned earlier, Jon, the story, the political story of Wisconsin that is probably freshest in people’s memories is the story of 2016 and 2020 wherein the rural-urban divide featured pretty prominently, and a lot of ideological battle lines were drawn along that divide.
Harvey J. Kaye: Sorry.
Maximillian Alvarez: Steichen?
And so I think that this context is really important. I mean, I think that people can already see in our discussion of Hortonville how it’s not so simple. I mean, because even at the time of the Hortonville strike, this was one of those cultural flare-ups. Where, as we mentioned, it’s a small district and during spring break in 1974, you had… Well, over the course of the strike, I don’t think it was all in spring break. But over the course of the strike you had over 500 teachers from around the state busing into this tiny town to support the teachers here on the picket line. And one of the things that the townspeople were always saying is that they were being called hicks. They were being called rednecks.
I’ve watched interviews with people who were there at the strike in ’74 still use that sort of language. So there was very much a prominent divide that became one of those sources for the flaring tensions in 1974. But I think it’s easy for people to take that sort of situation, especially the situation today, and project it back onto history as if there’s just something inherent to people living in rural Wisconsin or rural areas in general that makes them conservative. But Wisconsin shows that the reality is much more complex. So I wanted to ask you guys a little bit about that since a big feature of the Wisconsin Idea at In These Times is about the politics and history of rural America.
Harvey J. Kaye: Before you begin, I’ll just point out that for many years, the congressman from Northwestern Wisconsin, the most rural area of the state, was David Obey. Who at least in my book would’ve ranked as a progressive Democrat in his day. And now, in fact, it’s funny to even talk about it, because now you mentioned that part of the state and immediately Trump comes to mind as opposed to that longer standing progressive idea.
Jon Shelton: Yes. I mean, what I would say to that question. Let’s go back to the late 19th century for just a minute. Railroads. Everybody hated the railroads in the late 19th century. Workers hated them, of course, because of how they dealt with workers who were on strike. The first significant, really the opening moment in this class problem in the United States starts in 1877 when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, after four years of economic crisis, lowers the wages of its workers.
And so the strike spreads really rapidly because workers are like, no, we’re not going to accept this wage cut. So workers of course hate railroads. But rural people hate the railroads. Farmers, the railroads are this symbol of an entity that fucked them. I mean, because they would do things like jack up the rates for crops on certain routes, or in other cases undercut competitors so it was easier for bigger outfits to get stuff to market.
And so it’s not a surprise that when the Populist Party, big P, Populist Party in the 1880s and ’90s is organizing, they’re advocating for regulation of the railroads. And so when La Follette goes after the railroad industry in the late 19th and early 20th century, he’s not just speaking to people that are working for wages. He’s also speaking to small farmers. I mean, we’re not called the dairy state for no reason. I mean, one of the big backbones of our state is agriculture. And there’s a moment you can literally see it happen in 1974 where a lot of Democrats turn their back on rural people, and you can see it.
I’m sure In These Times has probably reported on this a little bit even. But the last decade has been absolutely awful for family farmers. There are hundreds of dairy farms that go out of business every year. And it’s not that the state’s producing any less dairy products, it’s that it’s large agribusinesses that are now doing that production because nobody, literally nobody, is doing anything to help small farmers.
And so if it comes down to, if Democrats aren’t really going to do anything for us and Republicans aren’t going to do anything for us, let’s at least vote for the party that’s going to give us lower taxes. That’s a calculation that some farmers might make. I still think that’s not the right calculation, but you could see how that might play into someone’s mindset.
And I know we’ll get into this. I don’t want to blame Democrats too much for the last 10 years because they’ve largely been out of power, but it is the case that I don’t see a very robust response to the needs of rural people, either at the national level for Democrats or at the state level. And that’s in significant contrast to, say, Robert La Follette back in the early 20th century.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and then I want to bring in the rest of the labor movement. Because as we’ve already said, especially in that period after World War II, Wisconsin really became the tentpole of the labor movement in a lot of ways. Thus manifesting in the hard-won victories of collective bargaining, so on and so forth. And in a way you can see that play out, obviously, in Hortonville. Not only in the teachers themselves trying to bargain with the school board, but also one of the linchpins to the conflict between Hortonville and the school board, one of the reasons the school board was able to bargain in bad faith is that there was no enforcement mechanism in, I think, the rewritten statute in 1971. It was basically a presumption that once public sector workers, including teachers, were granted the ability to collectively bargain, it was written into legislation that school boards had to bargain in good faith. And if they didn’t, there was nothing that could really be done.
And that was the wager that the school board here in Hortonville made. They said, well, we’re not going to bargain in good faith. What the fuck are you going to do about it? And then therein the teacher’s unions realized that there actually wasn’t a whole lot that they could do except use labor’s greatest power, which is to strike.
And then things get even more complicated. As the strike wore on, as it was clear that there was a moment, I think, in that strike when WEAC had called for a vote on a statewide strike, a sympathy strike. And you had all these locals around the state essentially voting to go on a sympathy strike with the teachers in Hortonville, but not all of them did. Including the most prominent one was in Milwaukee. And there are a number of reasons for that that I’ll ask you guys to maybe point out. But I guess the long and short of it is that if you are in your own district and you’ve negotiated a contract in which there’s a no-strike clause, you risk violating your own contract by going on the sympathy strike with the teachers in Hortonville.
So this is all part of that calculation that was being made about what to do as the strike wore on and as the intransigence of the school board here in Hortonville continued to harden. And so I think once Milwaukee, among some other districts, voted against the sympathy strike with Hortonville, the tactic changed. The tactic moved from forcing through rank and file action, forcing the hand of the school board here in Hortonville. Then the tack went towards filing legal injunctions against the school board for wrongful termination, for hiring scabs who were not properly qualified, so on and so forth. So can we talk about, I guess, the larger question of how the labor movement dealt with Hortonville and how that laid the ground for where the labor movement in Wisconsin would go after 1974?
Harvey J. Kaye: I can’t do it. It’s all yours.
Jon Shelton: Yeah. Okay. So the first thing I would say is this is, again, where the size of the union is really important, the size of the teachers. Because in other places where you had really contentious strikes, teachers could continue to hold out. They could continue to withhold their labor. Now this led to a lot of other unintended consequences such as turning some members of the public against unions writ large, and I talk about this in my book. But one of the big contradictions of public sector labor law in the United States, and it varies by state, but it’s more or less the same. It’s modeled on the Wagner Act.
The Wagner Act says workers have the right to organize. They have the right to collectively bargain. They also have the right to strike. They have the right to withhold their labor. Well, when public sector labor laws are written, they basically say, workers have the right to bargain. They have the right to organize. They don’t have the right to strike. Striking is illegal in most states, and Wisconsin was one of those states.
So what this effectively meant was the state was saying, you can organize. You can bargain even with an intransigent school board as you intimated, or as you said, they’re supposed to bargain with you. But what happens if they don’t? What happens if they don’t do that? Well, you can continue to hold out and use your leverage even though it’s illegal to do that. And that happens. Virtually every teacher strike in the United States in the 1970s was illegal, but you couldn’t do anything about it for the most part except maybe fine the union. Albert Shanker, who’s the president of the UFT goes to jail a few times, for like a couple of weeks, and you win the strike effectively.
But in this case because the teaching force was so small, it was this test case for, could you actually fire and replace the workers. And they could. And so by the time you get to the legal fights it’s effectively already lost. One of the things that I’m sure you’ll get into is that the case actually goes all the way to the Supreme Court and is a relevant precedent today about the local autonomy of school districts to manage their labor forces.
But in terms of the dynamics for the public and private sector, Elaine is the person to ask about MTA and why they decided not to support the walkout. My read on this, and this is just based on her stuff that I’ve read is that the teachers in MTA didn’t want to rock the boat. They wanted to maintain their own professional discretion in Milwaukee and didn’t want to draw attention to themselves.
But yeah, this is a problem across the country, is how much are private sector workers going to support public employees in the ’70s? And in some cases they do and in some cases they don’t. But it’s hit or miss. It depends on where you are. So for example, 1981, teachers in Philadelphia go on strike. There’s a lot of complicated stuff we could talk about, so I won’t go into it all. But the strike lasts seven weeks. Toward the end of the strike, the teacher union works with the Philadelphia Labor Council to ask for a sympathy strike, and they call a sympathy strike. It never happens because there’s essentially a legal order that preempts it.
But there was a lot of chatter that not as many blue collar workers as they thought were going to actually show up for them. That you had blue collar unions saying like, look how much money these teachers are making, we’re paying their taxes. Why would we not get our pay for that day or risk some kind of legal action? Because sympathy strikes are illegal. Why would we put our neck out for them? And again, this is this moment where you just have this breakdown in solidarity, the sense that workers are all competing with each other.
And the other piece of this that I would mention is that question of not bargaining in good faith. That’s something that increasingly private sector employers start to do in the 1970s. So they’re seeing what is happening in the public sector. They’re seeing things like Hortonville and saying, you know what? You can actually just get away with not bargaining with a union.
Lane Windham, who’s written this fabulous book on the 1970s, Knocking On Labor’s Door, charts a lot of this stuff. If you’re watching this or listening to this, you should get a copy of that book. And that definitely tracks with all of this ideological stuff that was happening from like the Chamber of Commerce, the Powell memo, all of that. Like let’s just go around the labor laws that exist. So that becomes a really important precedent, and it’s why we need labor law reform to this day, because employers have only gotten better and better at doing that. We saw that with Amazon, as I know you’ve reported it on.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no. I mean, could talk for days about that shit. But I think in a lot of ways that really sets us up for, I guess, the descent into the true heart of darkness. Which is the 2008 recession, Scott Walker, Act 10, Act 2, right-to-work. And so as we move towards that, I guess the last two things that I wanted to say about Hortonville by way of getting us there – And this is something that you’ve talked about a lot, Jon – Is that I suppose one thing to note that came out of Hortonville, because the teachers were not ever hired back. The teachers were fired, and for all intents and purposes the teachers lost.
One positive that came out of that, or one development that came out of that, was the implementation of a law that specified that if there ever was an impasse between teachers unions and school boards, it would have to be kicked over to a neutral third party arbitrator to essentially settle the contract. And that’s important because, as I mentioned before, the strike here got so ugly and it ran so deep in the minds and hearts of the people of this community that the teachers and the school board never effectively bargained a contract until the early 2000s, I believe. Hortonville was almost this unincorporated territory as far as the teachers unions were concerned. Did you want to say something?
Jon Shelton: Yeah. Well, I was just going to say at that point, Hortonville was actually an AFT local.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.
Jon Shelton: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I mean, so that should just really solidify for people that this wasn’t just a thing that happened and then people got over it. This was a thing that people carried with them for a long, long time. And then the other thing that I wanted to say is that, bringing together lot of the strands that we’ve put out here on the table, is that I think you could say in a certain way, both in the minds of the townspeople who were against the strike, especially the school board and the law firm advising them, people watching around the state who had a very vested interest in a certain outcome in the state, is that it felt like this was like a stand against the barbarians at the gates. A stand against the rising tide of an outside, increasingly militant, increasingly demanding, who-the-fuck-are-you labor movement that almost was at their doorstep.
Jon Shelton: Increasingly diverse. Don’t forget about that. That’s really important.
Maximillian Alvarez: An increasingly diverse workforce. Exactly. So in a lot of ways, the school board and the supporters, the vigilantes felt like they were on the front lines defending their community, America, what have you against this rising tide that was coming from the past few decades. And that was also the messaging around Act 10. There was a lot of messaging about the power of unions. And not only that, but also Scott Walker was, in many ways, a chessmaster in pitting working people against teachers, pitting different sectors of the working class against one another. So why don’t we, I guess, set our course for that, and talk about how the different strands that we’ve been putting on the table really came to a head again in –
Harvey J. Kaye: Well, let’s start off with the fact that in 1978, give or take a few years, capital declared war on labor. They essentially did it earlier with the Powell memorandum, the crisis of democracy. But it’s in ’78 under Jimmy Carter as president where the White House turns its back on labor. Doug Fraser, who’s the president of the UAW, was a part of the Dupont Commission, which is meant to be this ongoing sounding board for labor and management to work together to address problems of industrial relations. And he resigns and issues a letter, basically. In fact, maybe the term “class war from above” comes from him. It’s either that or the Marxist political scientist Ralph Milliband, who I studied with. Well, not personally, but I studied a lot of his work.
It really is a declaration of class war. And so it means that what they’ve already been doing in terms of trying to break unions, take back pension arrangements, lower wages or at least contain wages, is now going to be a really dynamic force. They’ve pretty much declared war. And remember, this is in ’78 under a Democratic presidency that does nothing to effectively prevent that from transpiring, but –
Jon Shelton: But he builds houses now, Carter. That saves the entire legacy. He now builds houses.
Harvey J. Kaye: Have you checked the way he nails? No? So, okay. But, so the thing is that declaration of war is not only in the workplace – In fact, it’s decidedly in the workplace. But it’s also a massive, massive campaign, public relations, advertising where conservative politicians and corporate industrial associations are issuing new magazines, or they’re taking out advertisements.
And who are they going after in all of that? Well, it’s interesting to note that they not only want deregulation of business. They not only want lower taxes. They also make it very clear that unions are the problem. And by the way, if you go back over these decades and look into the magazines and journals of the right, there is a decided emphasis on teachers unions. They are after teachers unions.
Jon Shelton: The bete noir of the right, as I write in my book.
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah.
Jon Shelton: And the other thing I would say about this is, so Harvey talked about a little of this context of the increased competitiveness of other corporations with American heavy manufacturing in the ’60s and ’70s, ironically corporations that in Japan and West Germany were rebuilt with Marshall Plan funds, largely. But that continues in Wisconsin into the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, and Wisconsin is kind of an epicenter there.
So, Wisconsin has very high unionization rates in blue collar industries up until the ’70s and ’80s. And then there starts to be this decline. You start to have companies look for cheaper options. This is part of that profit squeeze that Harvey was talking about in the ’70s. One of the things that they try to do is they try to shift their labor to either other parts of the United States like Alabama or to the global South where they know that workers will take less money and where you have climates that are averse to unions.
And so you have this massive capital flight that happens in Wisconsin. So there’s lots of places you could look at, but what happens in Kenosha with American Motors, which becomes Chrysler, is just absolutely tragic. A lot of people probably don’t remember this, and I don’t remember it but I’ve read about it, a lot of the big conflict that happened over the closing of that plant. I mean, you’re talking about 5,000, 6,000 workers that ended up losing their jobs. Jesse Jackson was prominently supporting saving the plant. And so that continues, especially in Southern Wisconsin.
I mean, a lot of people watching this probably remember that in 2008 in the presidential election there was a lot of discussion of Janesville. Obama gives a famous speech there. But then both in 2008 and 2012 there’s this debate over what’s happening with the plant there. So livelihoods for blue collar workers, particularly these union jobs, they’re becoming scarcer and blue collar workers are feeling very threatened by that.
And Walker sets this up in his campaign in 2010. He doesn’t say he is going to do Act 10, but he famously says, public employees are the haves, everybody else are the have-nots. And then there’s a debate that happens – And I’ve written about this – Over this company in Fond du Lac called Mercury Marine which is an outboard motor company, and has since grown, quite, quite lucrative in the years since. But they were looking for Wisconsin to basically give them a much bigger package of tax incentives so they don’t go somewhere else.
And the previous governor, Doyle, gives them this huge set of tax incentives. It’s dwarfed by Foxconn, which we might get to. But at that time it’s the biggest set of incentives ever given to a corporation. And Walker on the campaign trail says, if I’m governor, Mercury Marine’s not even talking about leaving. Because I’m going to make the business climate here so good that they wouldn’t even consider it because I’m going to cut taxes. The thing he was intimating there is like, I’m also going to be staunchly anti-labor, but it’s going to give you all jobs. So that’s very much on the table.
So you have to remember that that’s one of the ways that Walker kind of builds this consent for something like Act 10 is, again, by using the anxieties, the economic anxieties, that a lot of blue collar workers feel and rural people feel and directing them at public employees who really weren’t making astronomical salaries or had astronomical benefits. But compared to those workers who had lost those things because they no longer had union contracts, they looked really good. So this is a classic Republican thing of directing attention away from where it belongs, away from millionaires and billionaires, and toward other workers who are just doing a little bit better than you. Or you see as threatening, which is one of the things Trump was able to do by demonizing undocumented immigrants, for example.
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah. Just two things I want to point out. So back in the early ’80s and into the ’80s, whenever we had our annual Wisconsin Labor History Society meetings, and labor leaders, if we met in Milwaukee or down in the Kenosha, Racine area, labor leaders from the Southeastern part of the state over to Janesville would come. And I remember at lunchtime conversations when we talked politics, they said the Democratic Party is going to bleed blue collar workers because they did nothing in the late ’70s to protect our jobs. And they now actually said Reagan is going to promise tax cuts, which may well keep more business in the United States. You know where that goes. And I can remember that. I can even see it in my mind as they’re saying it.
The other thing I want to point out to come up to the Walker years is the fact that state employees were heavily organized by AFSCME. And state employees –
Maximillian Alvarez: Which was founded in Wisconsin.
Harvey J. Kaye: Yeah, right. And the thing to understand is that AFSCME included a lot, maybe the majority of unionized workers were white collar in the traditional sense. And their wages, which included professionals, as an average were higher than blue collar jobs. So he could really play on that resentment. But no one pointed out, of course, that a lot of these people were college educated and so on and so forth.
But, I’ll just jump ahead. The divide, it was a brilliant maneuver. Absolutely brilliant. And then of course within a couple of years, I’m forgetting that the time passed, we followed Michigan and became a right-to-work state.
Maximillian Alvarez: 2015.
Harvey J. Kaye: 2015. Who could ever have imagined Michigan and Wisconsin as right-to-work states? Even now to say that I feel like vomiting.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. It really is a testament to how much the terrain has shifted. How much all these things that we’re trying to talk about here, and we could talk about this for days. But just, I guess for people, it’s not just factoids. This isn’t just something you read in a textbook.
This is like a fundamental war that was waged to not only break the back of organized labor power, but to do so for very expressed political and economic ends. And also on the other side, the failures of the forces that were expected to stave off that onslaught whether they be in the Democratic Party, whether they be in organized labor as such, losing. Or losing ground, at least, to the point that the bottom gave out with right-to-work decades later, if we’re talking about Hortonville and the radicalism that preceded it.
So, I wanted to maybe zero in on that Walker period. Because as you both said, as much as we all probably have plenty of words to say about Scott Walker, and I sure as fuck do, and the forces that were behind him of which there were many. We mentioned Kochs, Bradley, yada yada yada. Walker was almost like this candidate who was designed in a fucking lab to be the tip of the spear of the ruling class. And having the right rhetoric, knowing the right tactics to drive this top-down alteration of society and law sediment it into the basic social reality. And I think that the linchpin of all that was, as you said, Harvey, divide and conquer. Walker knew this better than anyone. The way that you get this is to break up any sense of unity or solidarity within the working class. And that was particularly effective coming out of the financial crash and the recession. I mean, shit, I’ve talked about it a lot of times on my show Working People and other interviews. My family lost everything in the recession. I remember what that felt like. This time 10 years ago I was working as a temp in warehouses and factories just to stay afloat along with other people who were standing outside at 3:00 in the morning with me at a temp agency just trying to get a paycheck for their families.
And that’s where what you said earlier, Harvey, really becomes important. Because if you are in that situation, or if you are near that situation, if you’re seeing others in that situation and you are worried about how close the cliff is behind you and you can’t vote on your wages, and like what the tax rate is is going to have that much of an impact on your ability to keep your home, to feed your family, yada, yada, yada. If you have a candidate like Walker who is able to say, I am not going to raise your taxes. In fact, I’m going to stick to that commitment, and I’m going to “balance the budget” by taking it out on these public sector workers. And I’m going to give –
Harvey J. Kaye: And give you money back, sorry. Go ahead and say.
Jon Shelton: Well, no, well, you say that part first.
Harvey J. Kaye: Well, let me make it clear. He raved by the fact that he was going to… Yes. I was about to hit someone with it. Not you guys. No. I mean, look, I can tell you how many thousands upon thousands of dollars the Walker administration cost me because it dramatically revised the retirement plan. And then I had to hear him say how he’s given money back to the people. Well, of course, I could feel his hand on my heinie pulling my wallet out of my pocket. Okay. Yeah. I mean, very, very effective.
Jon Shelton: But the other piece of this says jobs, it’s jobs. So he says, I’m going to create a business climate by cutting taxes. Taxes are high because of these public employees, and I’m going to create jobs. He promised to create 250,000 jobs in his first term as governor. For people like your family who lost everything, or somebody who works at Mercury Marine that’s worried about their job leaving, that job is everything to them. And so they are going to support the person who says they’re going to keep their job.
It’s the same dynamic with Trump. There’s lots of reasons people voted for Trump. Not all of them were for this reason, but there was some subset of them, probably enough to swing the election, at least in Wisconsin and Michigan and other places with very tight margins, who thought he was going to bring back their jobs.
Harvey J. Kaye: Because he opposed NAFTA.
Jon Shelton: Because he unequivocally opposed NAFTA. And because he basically… And when you had the other candidates saying like, I’m not going to do anything to bring back your jobs. What’s the rational response? Even if there’s only a 10% chance that this person’s going to bring back your manufacturing job or keep your manufacturing job, the rational response is to vote for them. And a lot of professional class people don’t understand that. And so that’s a through line throughout Walker’s governorship. And probably the reason that he lost in 2018, we can talk a little bit about that, that’s also a complicated election and razor thin margins, but it’s because he didn’t bring the jobs. Even by the end of his second term, he didn’t bring 250,000 jobs. And he negotiated this deal for Foxconn as a just desperation measure, didn’t bring any jobs, but that was like, hey, this guy didn’t actually do the things that he said he was going to do.
And look at where our schools are, particularly in rural areas. I mean, I think that’s one of the reasons that Evers, who’s a superintendent of education, won is because of the damage that Walker’s education budgets really, and Act 10 more generally, did to schools in the state, especially rural schools.
Harvey J. Kaye: And I want to say that you may have noticed that when I spoke of public employees, I never included university faculty as a reference. Because in fact, in 1959, university faculty, state university faculty were not included under the collective bargaining law. And it was all… I took part in three union campaigns. WEAC when I got here, an AAUP effort along the way, and then the AFT. But really, I don’t think we’d ever gotten an opportunity to bargain collectively because of Act 10.
But Walker was so eager to destroy the Wisconsin Idea that he commanded a revision of the, for lack of a better way of putting it, the university’s charter. And in doing so, he eliminated from the charter, they erased from the charter the pursuit of truth, which was fundamental to the original statement of the Wisconsin Idea on what the university would be doing. And two, they erased the idea that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.
Jon Shelton: Well, and he rewrote it to say that the university was there to essentially just to do workforce development. But that was just a drafting error. He was never serious about that.
Harvey J. Kaye: That’s not the case. They somehow rather got exposed or somebody noticed, probably because one person noticed and they said, wait a second. So he said, oh, there was just a drafting error.
Jon Shelton: Everything’s a drafting error when you write something.
Harvey J. Kaye: What bullshit! Geez, God, it pisses me every time I think about that.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I mean, could we talk a little bit about that? Because as I guess we wind things down, but what impact Act 10 has had on you guys as UW professors, now professor emeritus at UW-Green Bay, on the school system, and I guess just on organized labor as such in the state.
Harvey J. Kaye: He’ll speak better to it than I will, but I want to preface all the things we’ll close with by saying, I’m going to preface by saying that in the years leading up to Act 10, the Democratic governor, Doyle, treated public employees like shit. Furloughs, making promises of what they would eventually do. I mean, I could assure you that it wasn’t me, but I can imagine readily there were many a public employee without knowing what was over the horizon probably voted for Walker because they were so outraged by the Democrats at that point. Let me make it clear. The Democrats in this state have a pretty awful record. Maybe with younger people coming in we can recover whatever the Democratic Party might have been in the past with the likes of, I won’t say Proxmire, but quick… Russ Feingold on the one hand. Or going further back, the environmentalist… Help me out.
Jon Shelton: Oh, Nelson. Gaylord Nelson.
Harvey J. Kaye: Nelson, Gaylord Nelson. I mean there were Democrats who stood out, but the party itself left a lot to be desired. Now I think there’s some hope, there are young people coming in who might well be able to change things. But the university, what we saw was that budgets were cut. I don’t remember… I mean, we barely ever saw a faculty salary increase, but we hadn’t seen it under the Democrats very effectively either. I mean, and we had our pensions cut, supplies and expense budgets to make things possible were cut.
Over and over again, faculty would say, look, we’re going into our own pockets to do stuff that the state university should be providing. Not unlike school teachers had been doing for so very many years. And I know I’m leaving out other stuff, so I’ll let him speak right now. And I’ll try to remember the stuff that really pissed me off along the way.
Jon Shelton: Yeah. I just want to say quickly to your point about the Democrats, I want to throw some names out there that were really good Democrats because I don’t want it to just seem like we’re totally… I mean, I think there is…
Harvey J. Kaye: Let me see if I’ll agree.
Jon Shelton: Okay, Dave Hanson.
Harvey J. Kaye: A good guy.
Jon Shelton: Dave Hanson was our state senator, very pro worker. He was one of the state senators who left the state in 2011. Eric Genrich, our former assembly representative and now the mayor of Green Bay.
Harvey J. Kaye: These are good guys. These are good guys. I’m not going to argue against being good guys.
Jon Shelton: So just saying. But I…
Harvey J. Kaye: But I’m not going to say they did everything they could have done, that I won’t say.
Jon Shelton: What I would say is I think the bigger political vision hasn’t been there for sometime.
Harvey J. Kaye: Thank you. I can’t remember when they’ve had a political vision in the Democratic Party.
Jon Shelton: And that tracks with the Democratic Party nationally probably since the 1970s.
Harvey J. Kaye: Democratic Party politics writ small.
Jon Shelton: Yes. But in terms of how Act 10 has affected us. So I mean, first of all, university faculty and staff had collected bargaining rights for a minute. 2009, Doyle signed this into law, actually in 2009, I think. And Act 10 immediately took those bargaining rights away from faculty and staff. So whereas at our union, we actually had a representation election. It was before I was here. You, I’m sure, voted in it.
Harvey J. Kaye: I did.
Jon Shelton: Not sure which way you voted.
Harvey J. Kaye: I voted for AFT. I was like, are you kidding?
Jon Shelton: I’m joking. That’s a joke.
Harvey J. Kaye: I voted for the Teamsters. I voted for AFT.
Jon Shelton: I think the margin was like 150 to 2 or something. So, we voted for AFT to be our bargaining agent, but Act 10 took away those bargaining rights so we never got a contract. For K-12 education, this is where Act 10 has been more disastrous, I think. So what it’s done is it’s made things really difficult for smaller school districts, poorer school districts, because now larger school districts can effectively poach teachers and pay them more money, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing.
But what it means is like, especially teachers that are really in a high demand like math and science teachers and special education teachers, it’s difficult for a lot of less wealthy school districts to keep those teachers. Teachers in Western parts of the state go to Minnesota, teachers in Southern parts of the state go to Illinois where salaries are higher.
And so there’s been an enormous level of teacher turnover, which is really bad for education outcomes. There’s also been an enormous shortage of people going into teaching. So that’s declined. I mean, I’m not in the education department, but teaching history classes, I teach a lot of students who are becoming social studies teachers, and there’s just fewer and fewer each year. Because it’s just not seen as a job that is as good of a job. It’s seen as difficult, it’s seen as not respected. In fact, there’s been national polling that showed that just in the past few years, it’s more than 50% of parents don’t want their kids to become teachers. That’s like the first time since this polling has been done that that’s been the case.
But where we got hurt more in the UW system was in 2015 when Walker passed Act 55. Before that, UW faculty, staff, and students, by the way, had shared governance rights that were limited to state statutes.
Harvey J. Kaye: I was hoping you would bring it up. That was definitely what I was going to talk about.
Jon Shelton: And we had the strongest tenure rights in the country. It made UW employment extremely attractive for people coming from the outside. I remember when I came here in 2013, even after Act 10 it was like, oh, you got into a UW institution? That’s great. Like they’re known for supporting faculty. They’re known for supporting academic freedom. And so Walker and the legislature took those things out of state statute, packed the Board of Regents with a number of regents that were anti-faculty. And we fought against it. I mean, I’m proud of our union and the work that we’ve done at UW-Green Bay to collectively fight for those things. And I feel like it’s been a grind, but we’ve been able to retain most of those things. Not the case at all the institutions.
I mean, there are some institutions where the administration is really running roughshod over faculty. And if you don’t have a strong union, that’s going to happen. So that’s a significant change. And you add that on top of the budget cuts which have just completely stripped away the infrastructure that’s necessary for students and necessary for things like faculty professional development, and what you have is just a total state of precariousness that’s changed a little bit in the past few years, as we have a Democratic governor who’s more interested in putting money back into UW system as… I forgot my other point.
Harvey J. Kaye: Well, could I say something in the meantime?
Jon Shelton: Yeah. Go ahead.
Harvey J. Kaye: There were UW regents who were prepared to privatize the state university. That tells you something.
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. I mean and I guess like, this brings us to the wrapping up point, because I remember throwing this thesis out to you, Jon, before we got here to Wisconsin, and I was talking to you about the big investigation that we wanted to do here, both tracing the intertwining legacies of the Hortonville strike in ’74 in Act 10 in 2011. Trying to trace where they came from, how they parallel one another, how they diverge, but also ultimately how things could have been different or how they could be different in the future. Where we go from here. I think we, in a lot of ways, have answered that original question we started with, which is how the fuck did we get here.
Now the question is, what the fuck do we do? And so I wanted to maybe end on that point, like if we take Hortonville and Act 10 as two pivotal moments that do show us like… That do, I think, play a prominent role in this larger historical war of position between labor and capital, between the ruling class and the working class, between democracy and anti-democracy. And the forces of reaction, the forces that would limit our democratic ability to have a say in our workplaces, to have a say in our economy, in our politics, to make society more just and more equitable for all of us.
In Wisconsin, we have lost a lot of ground in that war position. But it’s an ongoing war. I mean, it’s been going on. One of my favorite quotes that’s ever been said on my show Working People is from the great labor organizer out in Sioux Falls, Kooper Caraway, who said, the labor movement did not begin the first time a group of allied tradesmen sat in a bricklayers hall and came up with a charter. He’s like, from the moment one person had to serve another in order to survive, in that moment the labor movement was born. And in that constant battle, that struggle for freedom, that struggle for what we deserve, the labor movement lives on.
And so I wanted to ask you both what lessons can we take away from Act 10 from Hortonville? What positive signs are you seeing both in your own sphere at the university level, at AFT, but even broader than that? I guess, where the fuck do we go from here?
Harvey J. Kaye: As long as you quoted a labor organizer, I’m going to give you a quote that I think I’d like to hear you use on the show too. And first one, when it comes to choosing your representatives, your candidates, if anyone ever says to you, I want to fight for you. I want to be your champion, tell them to screw off. The only ones you trust are the ones who want to encourage the fight in you. That to me is a fundamental. And if I could just say, the only candidate of the last number of elections who I’ve heard speak like that is Bernie Sanders.
And by the way, Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin because she wanted to be a champion and she didn’t want to do with, she wanted to do for, having said that. But I think it really is the case because if people count how many times I’ve badmouthed the Democrats over the last 45 year history, I want to make it clear, if the Democrats want to win and if we want to have a winning political party, and I don’t think the chances right now of a third party are worth talking about, to be honest, then it has to be the case that we have got to make sure that they not only promise to go big, but that they start cultivating a vision based on American history itself. The radical story that is America. Whether it’s the revolution and Thomas Paine, whether it’s the labor struggles, the women’s struggles, the struggles of slaves in the South, remind Americans of what it means to be an American.
When you hear a politician reminding Americans of who they are, of who their grandparents, great grandparents were and reminds them that it’s not me, us, that’s how we turn this. Personally, Jon knows it, I’ve been pushing as many young Democrats as possible to recall FDR’s economic bill of rights. Start talking to working people like they matter, but not like they’re fools. Like they matter. They carry, we all carry in us a kind of historical memory that needs to be cultivated and empowered, and engaged.
Jon Shelton: Yeah. I’m a 100% subscriber to Harvey’s newsletter, as he knows. What I would add to that, I think, beautiful representation of where we need to go in terms of some specifics. So the big ideas. So in 2018 when Walker was touting Foxconn, you’re talking about a project that was going to cost the state $4 billion to bring in potentially 13,000 jobs.
Instead of doing that, there were no Democrats. And I wrote about this and encouraged Evers to do it as a candidate. How about profering something like a Wisconsin jobs guarantee. If we’re going to spend that much money on livelihoods that are going to be subsidized through a corporation, why can’t we just advocate for that ourselves? Why can’t we advocate for those big ideas? And where history comes into place, I think Harvey said really well, is if we did that, it wouldn’t be the first time anyone’s ever offered a fucking jobs guarantee. FDR proposed the basic idea with the Second Bill of Rights in 1944. I can’t believe we talked about this and I’m the one who mentioned the Second Bill of Rights.
Harvey J. Kaye: I said Economic Bill of Rights.
Jon Shelton: Okay. All right. But there were efforts, this was meant to be FDR’s legacy to pass an actual jobs, full employment act that would’ve been something like a jobs guarantee in 1945. In the 1970s, Coretta Scott King and Augustus Hawkins and Hubert Humphrey pushed for essentially a jobs guarantee. And Coretta said, this is Martin’s legacy. So these things have been in our history, the idea that people deserve the right to a livelihood, the right to a job is so basic to what it means to be an American, that all we need are Democrats to inspire, to bring those ideas and inspire people that we can do these things again, instead of pushing for these incremental boring ideas like tax cuts that the Republicans are always going to do a better job of pushing for anyway.
So that’s number one, the vision piece. In terms of the organizing aspect of this. So one of the things we’ve done in AFT Wisconsin – And I’m really proud of this, and I know you’ve talked to some of our members even here in Hortonville – Is after Act 10 we basically said as a state Federation, this isn’t 2008 anymore. We’re not servicing contracts anymore. We’re not going to just say, okay, we don’t have collective bargaining so we’re fucked. We are going to find other ways to build power. We are going to look for, as you said, Max, what a union is, it’s not reducible to a contract. What gives a union power is solidarity and numbers and organizing for power. And so that’s what we’ve done. And we have won some pretty big victories in that time. I don’t want to say it’s perfect. I mean, we still, I think, have a lot of problems in this state, but as an example of this. So Walker implemented a tuition freeze in 2013 and it was combined with these brutal budget cuts.
So what we did in AFT Wisconsin, we got local leaders from different unions. We got together and we said, how do we deal with this defunding of the university? And one of our members basically said, is Nick Fleischer actually, I’ll give him credit for this, at UWM, basically said, forget about, like, we’re not going to say we need to raise tuition. We’re not going to get the funds that the UW system needs on the backs of students. What we’re going to do is we’re going to advocate for public funding for the UW system. And the slogan was fund the freeze.
We’ve been organizing around that idea for years, and we’ve organized around it so much that Democratic politicians like Evers are now… They’ve co-opted the idea. They’re using that slogan. They don’t even remember that it came from us because we were able to build that much power for it on our campuses. We made this a huge organizing drive over a couple years, we’re still doing it. So now the Republicans just proposed to allow the Board of Regents to raise tuition, and we’re on the right side of that issue. Because we’re saying no, like you’re not going to put this on the backs of students. We have to fund the tuition freeze and make sure we have the things that we need. Locals are also building better connections to their communities because they need community support to build this kind of solidarity now.
So I’m hopeful for that reason. And I’m also hopeful because, to Harvey’s point about cultivating new Democratic politicians, one of the things we’re working really hard to do – And I’m 100% confident this is the right approach – We don’t rubber-stamp Democrats anymore. We only endorse and support. And the support is the important part, because anybody can endorse somebody. But we only support candidates that are pro worker, are pro labor, and have a vision for social democracy. We don’t support anybody else.
We took a huge chance in a Senate primary supporting a candidate against a Democrat in the Madison area who had substantially more money. And I had an in of course, but I’m proud to say that my local and AFT Wisconsin supported my partner who challenged an incumbent Democrat for our state legislative seat, she’s Harvey and I’s representative. And she’s got a vision for how to change things. And she’s already put out… You might want to talk about this. I’ll leave that for you.
But that’s what has to change. Unfortunately, I think we need a lot more people like that. But to take a hackneyed idea that from crisis comes opportunity, that is what we have here. And we have people that are organizing now in this state, again, you’ve talked to some of them in Hortonville, thinking of new ways to build power so that when Democrats take power again we have a real vision. We can actually create a state in which all working people have a livelihood and have healthcare and have a good public education, and those things that will inoculate us from reactionary conservatives in the future.
Harvey J. Kaye: I’ll say what Jon probably hesitated to say. And that is for 20 years, I tried to get the Democrats through my state senator to embrace the idea of a Wisconsin Economic Bill of Rights. Nothing happened. Jon’s partner, Christina, ran for the state assembly, was elected, and she and Francesca Hong, a representative from the Madison area, immediately launched – I’d like to think that I was influential in this – Immediately launched a Wisconsin Economic Justice Bill of Rights modeled after FDR’s Bill of Rights with a 21st century sensibility and mission.
And I’m hoping that this kind of thing can be replicated elsewhere, because especially if the Democrats are not in power, they can’t go big on budget, they can’t go big on projects, they go big on vision and imagination. And I think Americans, I think Wisconsinites will respond. This is a history of progressivism in this state. People must be yearning to revive the better angels of our nature.