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Every Wednesday at 6:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m., and 5:45 p.m., we turn back the clock on WXPR with local historian Gary Entz to find out what life in the Northwoods used to be like. This is part of a new initiative by WXPR to tell the history and culture of northern Wisconsin.You can keep track of A Northwoods Moment in History and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

The Mill Strike of 1892 and the Origins of Organized Labor in Rhinelander

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Wikimedia Commons
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Organized labor’s campaign for a ten-hour workday gained momentum in the 1870s and 1880s.  The often-violent response to union demands in places like Chicago and Milwaukee served to make the public more open to union ideas.  The Northwoods was slow to accept the inevitable, but by 1892 the push for a ten-hour workday hit Rhinelander.  

In Wisconsin, organized labor’s campaign for the ten-hour workday culminated in Milwaukee when on May 1, 1886, workers went on strike and shut down industry across the city for five days.  Employees in only one business, the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View, resisted the call.  On May 5 demonstrators gathered outside the foundry to demand that the workers inside join the strike.

Governor Jeremiah Rusk called out troops and had them open fire on the demonstrators.  At what is now known as the Bay View Massacre, seven unarmed people were killed and many more seriously wounded.  At the time, the press hailed Rusk as a national hero, but his reactionary response had the opposite effect.  People across Wisconsin were appalled and became sympathetic to the workers’ demands.  Over the next few years most Wisconsin business leaders accepted the ten-hour workday.

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Credit Wikipedia Public Domain
A portrait of Webster Brown

The exception was the Northwoods.  While business leaders across the state adopted the ten-hour workday, Northwoods business leaders dug in their heels and continued to resist.  This hardline stance led to an inevitable conflict.

A July 1892 strike in Merrill ended successfully for the workers, but only in Merrill. In late August 1892, roughly 500 workers employed in the lumber mills at Eagle River and Woodboro walked out on strike demanding a ten-hour workday.  The mill owners simply fired the workers and sent out for scabs willing to work the old eleven-hour a day schedule.  The act of callously discharging the workers had a ripple effect throughout the Northwoods, and on September 1 over 1200 workers in six Rhinelander mills joined the strike.

The Knights of Labor, an industrial union that rivaled the AFL at the time, had at least three representatives in Rhinelander helping to organize the workers.  Anderson and Webster Brown along with other mill owners in Rhinelander tried the same tactic used in Eagle River; that is, simply fire the workers and hire scabs.  This time it did not work as the Knights of Labor organizers showed Rhinelander workers how to peacefully march into a mill and escort the scabs out.  Rhinelander mills were shut down.

The Brown brothers were furious, particularly since the county sheriff refused to attack the strikers so long as they remained peaceful.  Therefore, Webster Brown and lawyer John Barnes went to Madison to ask the governor to intervene.  Governor George Peck listened to Brown’s request to send military troops to Rhinelander then asked him point blank if he had even bothered to negotiate with the striking workers.  Both Brown and Barnes admitted that they had not.  The governor said he would take their request under advisement until he heard the workers’ side of the story.

The strike continued for over a week, but without the aid of military force there was little the mill owners could do.  The railroads were losing money too, and in the end pressure from the railroads forced the mill owners to the bargaining table.

Northwoods workers won the ten-hour workday at the same daily wage as before.  The organizers were prosecuted, but the union presence was firmly established in the Northwoods.

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