State Legislation as a Fulcrum for Change: Wisconsin's Public Sector Labor Law, and the Revolution in Politics and Worker Rights


The rise of public sector unions is one of the most significant but least examined movements for legal rights and social change. Through the 1950s, government employees typically had no right to bargain collectively or even to organize unions–rights often regarded as fundamental human rights–and public sector unions were small and relatively powerless. Yet today, unions represent more than 40 percent of all public workers, government employees make up about 40 percent of the entire U.S. labor movement, and public sector unions are among the strongest political advocacy groups in the country. This became possible only through a revolution of reform in state legislation in the past forty years: state laws that grant public workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. This sea-change in law and politics and the accompanying vast expansion of a social movement is notable in that it was done neither through federal laws nor a Supreme Court decision, but rather through state statutes and political action. In this era of federalism, such mechanisms of legal reform deserve increased scrutiny.

Using archival documents of the groups involved, this article analyzes the first political victory on this issue: Wisconsin’s public sector laws of 1959 and 1962. These laws created the first state statute to grant organizing and collective bargaining rights to public employees. The passage of this law required a decade-long battle over ideas, political power, and legal doctrines. The article traces this struggle in all of these arenas, describing how the interaction of theory, evolving societal norms, and political muscle started a wave of reform in a crucial area: the legal regulation of a social and economic movement. The result was a fundamental turning point in the legal rights of workers in this country and in American politics. It is also a case study of how significant social and political change can be accomplished at the level of state statutes.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Human Rights Law | Labor and Employment Law | Law and Politics | Law and Society | Legal History | Legislation

Date of this Version

March 2005