A brief history of Wisconsin
Published Apr 17, 2011 9:14 PM
Less than a year ago the Tea Party was able to attract considerable publicity
around a rally it held in Wausau, Wis.
High unemployment and foreclosures, plant closings, the virtual disappearance
of family and middle-sized farms, and their displacement by larger factory
farms had the people of this state angry and confused. But extreme right-wing
movements are a sign of the weakness of the capitalist class, not its
In just a few weeks of working-class action and struggle, a major shift in
union and class consciousness has taken place here in Wisconsin.
It is instructive to briefly go over the history of this state. The land was
stolen from the Native people, mostly the Ojibway, who had lived here for more
than 10,000 years. That is where the name Chippewa comes from. Immigrants from
Ireland and France began settling along the upper Chippewa River in the late
The first natural resource exploited here was the pine — big, straight
trees that produced the greatest lumber in the world. English lumber barons got
rich off the labor of French and Irish lumberjacks like my grandfather.
Chippewa Falls for a while had the largest sawmill under one roof in the world.
The logs and lumber were floated down the Chippewa River by river people,
mostly French and Native men. V. R. Dunne, a Minneapolis union leader in the
tempestuous struggles of the 1930s and a good friend of this writer in his old
age, had been one such river person.
The exploiters cut the beautiful, straight timber, made their money and left
relatively quickly. They left behind, however, another resource — the
very rich soil. This was not flat prairies, like much of the Midwest, but small
hills and valleys of rich grassland, perfect for cows and small family
Soon there were more cows than people, and Wisconsin was the largest producer
of milk and cheese in the country, exporting to other states and the world.
Only in the area around Lake Michigan did much industry grow up.
Capitalist parties: no solution for the workers
Politically, the people of Wisconsin were very opposed to slavery and a
plantation-type economy. The Republican Party was actually founded in Wisconsin
in 1854. It was a new national party opposed to the spread of slavery into the
Western territories. It soon had three divisions: a center, a far left and a
far right — all with their own newspapers and followers.
The far right of the Wisconsin Republican Party eventually produced
reactionaries like Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society. Out of the
far left came the Populists and Progressives. This often led to great political
swings in the state.
In that period, the Democratic Party hardly existed in Wisconsin, except during
national presidential campaigns. The Republicans, however, had a strong social
base among the farmers.
By the 1940s, Wisconsin’s economy was changing. The thousands of small
dairies were being bought up by Kraft Foods. Soon small family farms were
becoming large family farms. Later these were either absorbed by or became
larger industrial farms that hired tens and even hundreds of laborers at low
Industries began to develop in the Milwaukee area and the unions got a foothold
there. Union members were able to get signatures to put Democratic Party
candidates on the ballot. Auto and eventually computer factories came to the
state, made a lot of money and have mostly gone elsewhere today. The Democratic
Party, which grew in this period, has now grown weak.
Today hardly any family farms remain. Only a few specialty cheese producers and
dairies that handle perhaps half a percent of Wisconsin’s cheese and milk
production remain independent. Kraft Foods, however, has become a transnational
corporation with $50 billion in net annual revenue and more than half its
business outside of North America.
The Republican Party, which had been based on the farmers, is now a party of
big capital. The Democratic Party has some people based in the unions. However,
the industrial unions have been greatly weakened.
The election in 2010 of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who has launched a
direct attack on the very existence of unions, was the result of people’s
frustration with the failure of the Democrats to stem the growing capitalist
A union firefighter recently told me that he had voted for Walker because he
thought at the time that Walker would bring jobs, while the Democratic
candidate would not. But now he was out on the streets, protesting
Walker’s attack on the unions’ right to bargain and organize.
Some think the uprising of the Wisconsin public workers has energized the
Democratic Party. But U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat, never went to Madison
and has said nothing about this struggle. President Barack Obama likewise has
not spoken to the protesters or the teachers, only to a group of mainly
Republican governors, telling them he understands their budget problems.
What strength the unions have at present comes from the public sector, like the
teachers. If Gov. Walker is able to destroy the government unions, he will
basically have destroyed the Wisconsin union movement.
But this is the past. Today the people of Wisconsin — union members,
students and people from the community — are in the streets and have
actually succeeded in occupying the Capitol for more than three weeks. They
have gone around the capitalist political parties in their struggle, imparting
a new consciousness that will make a new history.
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