Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialists

I recently spent several days in Milwaukee to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin about urban history and politics. My new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, includes a profile of Victor Berger — the leader of Milwaukee’s vibrant Socialist movement, which ran the local government for most of the years from 1910 to 1960 — so I was curious to learn how he is remembered in his city. It turns out that there are no buildings or other monuments named for Berger, who helped make Milwaukee one of the most progressive and well-run cities in the country. So I wrote an op-ed column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (and a longer version in the Huffington Post) about Berger’s many accomplishments. I encouraged local residents to mount a campaign to restore Berger’s name to its rightful place. Many of the ideas that he and other Milwaukee “Sewer Socialists” espoused in the early 1900s — like municipal parks, public health programs, municipal ownership of utilities, old-age insurance, a minimum wage, and women’s suffrage — were considered radical at the time, but are now taken for granted. Indeed, remove the now-maligned word “socialist” and much of Berger’s agenda has broad support today throughout the country, including Milwaukee. Berger would be shocked that Wisconsin is currently ground-zero in the nation’s right-wing crusade against unions and progressive government — causes that he espoused. Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on unions, social services, and working families has triggered a huge backlash that catalyzed huge protests last year and now a grassroots movement to recall him from office.

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