The Eisenscher gallery showcases over 130 photos taken by Edmund Eisenscher (1909-1995), photographer for the “Wisconsin CIO News.” Today only about 11 percent of American workers belong to a union. But when Eisenscher was working, more than a third of working Americans were union members. Milwaukee was one of the nation’s leading manufacturing centers and, after four decades of socialist government, one of its strongest union communities, too. Residents considered labor unions a basic part of the social fabric like schools and churches. Eisenscher’s images document the role unions played in people’s lives during this vanished era.
His images range in time from 1938-1956, but the majority date from 1946-1948 when he was a photographer for “Wisconsin CIO News.” The nation was experiencing sharp price increases at the time and workers’ demands for raises to keep up with inflation met stiff opposition. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 outlawed or restricted many organized labor activities. On top of this, many labor unions also faced anti-communist persecution during the McCarthy Era.
About the Collection
Eisenscher’s photographs document union life in Milwaukee during this tumultuous time. They are especially valuable because they depict more than just strikes and demonstrations. Instead, most of his images show union members and their families outside of work participating in recreational activities including dancing and bowling.
His focus on life outside the factory conveys a sense of the strength of unions and the central role they played in workers’ lives. Dozens of images capture dances, picnics, weddings, bowling and other sports, and various social events. Eisenscher also took photos of the factory floor, strikes and union meetings, but the unique value of his work is its depiction of everyday life for working-class Milwaukee people during and after World War II.
Some of the topics that Eisenscher documented include a 1946 strike at Allis-Chalmers, demonstrations the same year of railroad car ferry workers for a 40-hour week, and the leftist People’s Bookstore. As large numbers of African Americans migrated to Wisconsin after the war, the “CIO News” ran a series about black union leader Isaiah Pyant (pictured right). The online collection contains more than two dozen images documenting African-American participation in union activities during the years that many of the state’s black families first arrived. The entire collection contains 891 prints and 939 negatives, from which 133 have been selected for this gallery.
The images published online derive from Eisenscher’s original 2×3 and 4×5-inch, black-and-white negatives. These larger format negatives captured a high level of detail and were often greatly cropped to provide close-ups for the CIO newspaper. Some later 4×5-inch negatives appear to be enlarged copy negatives that Eisenscher made himself.
Eisenscher’s technique and subject matter evolved over time. While early photos focus on an active and contentious period of labor history in Milwaukee, his later work shifts predominantly to Local #7 of the Amalgamated Lithographers of America, of which Eisenscher was a member.
Edmund Eisenscher (1909-1995), posing with his dog. View the original source document: WHI 3545
Eisenscher was born in Krakow, Poland, and immigrated with his family to the United States in 1911. He moved to Milwaukee about 1936 after two of his siblings settled in Wisconsin. He began taking pictures about 1938, if not earlier, and worked at a variety of jobs during World War II.
Immediately after the war he worked for three years at Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company. During these years he contributed photos to the “Wisconsin CIO News,” a labor union newsletter that had a widespread readership around the state. Most of the images in the collection date from this time when Eisenscher was working at Allis-Chalmers and publishing his photos in the CIO newsletter. Eisenscher later worked as a lithographer at the Continental Can Company in Milwaukee until the 1970s.
Note: Eisenscher’s original photographs are available in the Archives Reference Room at the Wisconsin Historical Society. See the catalog listing for the Edmund Eisenscher papers, 1936-1956. The Society library microfilmed the “Wisconsin CIO News,” available in the library catalog.
For more on Eisenscher’s life and times, see these two books from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press: “Blue Jenkins: Working for Workers” and “A City at War: Milwaukee Labor During World War II.” Two other titles provide additional context for Eisenscher’s photographs: “The Labor Movement in Wisconsin” and “Workers and Unions in Wisconsin: A Labor History Anthology.”