June 1 1961—The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers goes on strike, shutting down up to $20 million in construction for almost four weeks before UW law professor Nathan S. Feinsinger mediates a settlement which provides workers with what’s described as a “substantial” wage increase.
The following April, about 120 truck drivers in Teamsters Local 695 strike fifteen ready- mix concrete and building supply firms. As picket lines go up at Findorff and other general contractors, $120 million in construction shuts down, including Hilldale Shopping Center, the Van Vleck Mathematics Building, and an addition to Madison General Hospital. At Governor Nelson’s request, Feinsinger again mediates a settlement, ending the strike after twenty- four days. From a starting hourly wage of $2.65, the union sought a sixty- six- cent increase over three years, and the employers offered fifty cents; the settlement is for fifty- six cents.
In September 1965, local labor has lots to celebrate as it marks its day. Out of 113,000 job-seeking adults in Madison/Dane County, only eighteen hundred are out of work – an unemployment rate of 1.6 percent— far below the national rate of 4.4 percent. The largest workforce remains government
It’s still that low two years later, and still well below the state and national number. But now there’s a new round of labor strife.
Plumbers Union Local 167 isn’t fooling around when it goes on strike on Saturday, April 1. Because a strike by any one of the Building and Trades Council unions is honored by all the other trade unions, the Plumbers Union knows that it’s shutting down $120 million in major public construction projects in the city and a ten- county area. On the morning of Monday, April 3, Sheet Metal Workers, Steamfitters, Ironworkers, Bricklayers, and Cement Finishers also put their feet on the street, and stay there for nine weeks.
The strike takes its toll— the school board has to rent parochial school space for three months because the new John Muir School isn’t ready; the Monona Causeway isn’t open for the World Food Exposition at the Fairgrounds; and major campus projects, including the massive Humanities Building and the Elvehjem Art Center, are stalled. The strike succeeds— the unions get about everything they want, including elimination of the hated “Industry fund,” which forced independent contractors to inflate their bids for kickbacks to the trade associations.262
In 1968, a city already stressed by war, protest, and racial strife suffers a summer of strikes by fifteen hundred industrial workers.
On May 15, the 315 members of United Auto Workers Local 1329 and 23 members of Machinists Local 1406, with respective hourly wages averaging $2.25 and $2.90, strike Ray- O- Vac, the city’s third- largest employer.282 The strike lasts until late September, when new agreements provide for a 35- cent raise over three years, plus an increase in pensions.
On July 1, the 1,170 members of Steelworkers Local 1401, with an average hourly wage of $3.24, strike Gisholt Machine Company, the city’s second- largest private employer (after Oscar Mayer). Their strike also ends in late September and brings the workers a 67- cent raise over three years, plus improved pension benefits.
And a month later, labor unrest spreads to the protective services, as Fire Fighters Local 311 engages in a mass sick- out. The firemen, whose base monthly pay of $620 is second lowest only to Green Bay among major Wisconsin cities, want the same $110 raise city police just got. The city bargaining committee, led by Ald. Milo Flaten, offers $64.
Negotiations deadlock in July and stay that way till October 24, when union president Captain Edward D. Durkin and his men suspend all nonemergency work, including fire inspections. Three days later the slowdown becomes a sick- in; thirty firemen call in sick over the weekend, forcing fire chief Ralph McGraw to close three stations for seven hours and cancel all vacations.
The next weekend, thirty- eight firemen come down with the “Flaten Flu,” and Durkin threatens an all- out strike if any fireman is disciplined for sick leave abuse. McGraw declares another “state of emergency,” as staffing again dips below the minimum level.
On November 4, Circuit Judge W. L. Jackman orders union members to end the sick leave and resume their nonemergency duties. McGraw and Durkin both say the situation is the city’s fault. “The city is pushing us toward illegal action, and it’s going to be a bloody, violent fight all the way,” the union president says. “It is irresponsible of the city to push my men to the striking point,” chimes in his chief.
Durkin says union members are willing to break the law. Judge Jackman “can put us in jail right now,” he says. “We intend to strike if we don’t get our way.”
The third weekend, another fifteen firemen claim illness; Mayor Otto Festge wants Jackman to cite the union for violating his order, but the judge calls the parties into his chambers and hammers out a deal instead— $70 a month, consideration of job reclassifications, and an increased pension. It’s quickly ratified.
Then other city workers, who want another $50 a month, also come down with the Flaten Flu when exposed to the city’s offer of $30. On November 18, more than two- thirds of Madison’s 230 streets, sanitation, garbage, and engineering employees call in sick.334 Four days later, more than four hundred City Hall and school janitors, follow suit.
On November 26, Festge orders that seventy- three firemen, along with other municipal employees, have their pay docked for improper sick leave.336 The next day— the day before Thanksgiving— Judge Richard Bardwell orders the city to pay firefighters their full wages, unless it can show individual abuse. It never really tries.
Bardwell does not provide the same relief for the other employees, who ultimately settle for a $40 monthly boost, double pay for holidays, and a pension boost.
Aldermen Babe Rohr, Leo Cooper, and Paul Soglin try to reverse Festge’s order and reimburse the day’s wage to the employees; the day after Christmas, the council rejects their proposal, 13–6
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, labor-honoring, vaccine-taking, mask-wearing WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
photo courtesy Capital Newspapers.