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Labor unions once played a big role in Lake Geneva business

Labor unions once played a big role in Lake Geneva business

Ricardo Puentes construction worker Belfry Music Theater

Construction workers and others in the Lake Geneva region not long ago belonged to organized labor unions representing carpenters, masons, painters and bricklayers.

Lake Geneva was a much different town politically during the middle decades of the 20th century than it is today, in part because, during the first half of the 20th century, it was a strong union town.

The building trades unions were particularly strong in Lake Geneva, including the plumbers, carpenters, masons, bricklayers, plasterers, painters, and sheet metal workers. The headquarters of the unions was the Labor Temple at the southwest corner of Park Row and Warren Street, which had been the original building of the Immanuel Lutheran Church that is now located on Bloomfield Road at Highway 120.

My grandfather, Thomas Wardingle, died of a heart attack in December 1957 at the Labor Temple while attending a meeting of the plumbers union, of which he was a member.

In addition to a large number of Lake Geneva residents belonging to the building trades unions, residents who worked at the “Nash” (American Motors) auto plant in Kenosha were members of the UAW (United Auto Workers) Local 72, which was the most powerful union local in Wisconsin. Lake Geneva residents who worked at the GM auto plant in Janesville or at the Chrysler auto plant in Belvidere, Illinois, were also members of the UAW.

Frances McClean, who was the typesetter at the Lake Geneva Regional News, was a member of the International Typesetters Union (ITU). Lake Geneva residents who worked at the Admiral TV plant in Harvard, Illinois, were members of the electrical workers union.

Because my uncle, Tom Wardingle, and his father (my grandfather), were members of unions, I grew up in a union family. As a young boy, I would read the magazine of the National Association of Letter Carriers, and the magazine of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union when they arrived in the mail each month.

My first union activity as a young boy was when my uncle, William Malsch, who was a member of three unions (the masons, the bricklayers, and the plasterers), took me with him to the Manor, where a house was being constructed by “scab” (i.e., non-union) workers. I walked on a picket line in front of the house along with other members of the building trades unions.

In 1960, when I was working at the Lake Geneva Post Office, I joined my first union: the National Association of Letter Carriers. In 1967, three years after I had graduated from the University of Wisconsin, I began working at the Wisconsin Historical Society and I joined the union that represented the employees there, Local 1 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers (AFSCME). AFSCME Local 1 was the very first AFSCME local organized in the United States.

Shortly after I joined AFSCME Local 1, I was astonished to be elected to the local’s executive board. In 1971, when I was a construction worker in Madison, I was a member of Construction Laborers Local 434. In 1972, when I began working at the University of Wisconsin Archives, I joined AFSCME Local 171. Shortly thereafter I was elected a member of AFSCME Local 171’s stewards council and a delegate to the Madison Federation of Labor.

In 1974, the American Federation of Teacher (AFT) won the right to represent the employees of the UW Archives, so I joined the AFT. Later in 1974, after I had accepted the job as the university archivist at Northwestern University, I asked a co-worker how I could join the union there. My colleague looked at me like I was an idiot, and told me that unions would only be organized at Northwestern University “after the revolution.” Thus ended my union involvement.

During the 34 years that I lived in Evanston, Illinois, (1974 to 2008), before I returned to Lake Geneva, union membership in Lake Geneva had declined precipitously, which led, in part, to the political climate in Lake Geneva moving from the center much further to the right. In some measure, this was due to the closing of the UAW-organized auto plants in Kenosha and Janesville.

The passage of “Act 10” by the Wisconsin State Legislature in 2011 also facilitated the decline of union membership in Wisconsin. My old union, AFSCME Local 171, which had the largest membership of any union local in Wisconsin (more than 6,000 members), declined to the point where today it has only 132 members.

The Labor Temple in Lake Geneva is now long gone, and the building where it had been located became a private home. Young people growing up in Lake Geneva today have no idea that Lake Geneva was once a strong union town.

I, on the other hand, was very fortunate to have grown up during the middle decades of the 20th century, when it was indeed a strong union town.

Patrick Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.

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