Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development
Timeline History: Wisconsin Industrial Commission

The Wisconsin Bureau of Labor Statistics is replaced by a 3-member Industrial Commission. The Commission spent $59,718 in its first year.

One of the more notable Commissioners was John R. Commons. Dr. Commons was a Economics Professor at the University of Wisconsin. Commons influenced a generation of people who became involved in social reform and progressive legislation.

A reformer rather than a revolutionary, Commons championed laws that protected workers while preserving the efficiency of large-scale industry. Effective labor legislation, he maintained, could make the capitalist economic system work in favor of workers as well as employers. Commons' thinking influenced Wisconsin's most important new labor laws, especially industrial safety and unemployment insurance. On occasion, Commons' University classes became staging grounds for new legislation. Many of his students, including Arthur Altmeyer, became state or federal labor law administrators.

Arthur J. Altmeyer later became one of the most important figures in the history of Social Security. President Franklin Roosevelt called him "Mr. Social Security." The Social Security Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1935.

The Wisconsin legislature enacted more laws to regulate hours, wages and employment conditions of women and children.

  • Work week for children reduced to 48 hours.
  • Work week for women set at 55 hours.
  • Other industrial safety laws were passed.

Wisconsin established free employment services in its Milwaukee, Superior, LaCrosse and Oshkosh Employment Offices. These employment services were primarily local labor exchanges.

Nation's first modern apprenticeship law that included area vocational schools as a necessary component of apprenticeship programs. 625 apprentices were indentured in the first year in Wisconsin.

Nation's first state constitutional Workmen's Compensation Act (now Worker's Compensation) guaranteeing injury compensation as a legal right was enacted on May 3, 1911 and became effective September 1st to be administered by the Industrial Commission. TheConstitutionality of the Act was upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on November 1, 1911 (and by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926).

Workmen's Compensation Act
Workmen's Compensation Act


Francis Edward McGovern

First head of the Wisconsin Industrial Commission:
Charles Crownhart

Additional Commissioners:
Joseph D. Beck (1911-1917)
John R. Commons (1911-1913)

Economist and Commissioner John R. Commons
John Commons
Photo Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Video Clip about John Commons
(requires the free RealPlayer)

Read more about John Commons

Arthur Altmeyer, "Mr. Social Security"
Arthur Altmeyer
Industrial Commission Secretary

Biography of Arthur Altmeyer

newspaper reads Compensation Law Held Valid
Compensation Law Held Valid

Roadsign commemorating first Workmen's Compensation law
The nation's first WC law is commemorated with a state historical marker on Highway 51 north of Stevens Point.

Wisconsin's first elevator safety code took effect in 1913.

The first Wisconsin wage law was enacted in 1913 and specified that a "living wage" must be paid to women and minors. In enacting this law, the Legislature specified that "every wage paid or agreed to be paid by any employer to any female or minor employee shall be not less than a living wage." Administrative authority was given to the Industrial Commission, which was to use an advisory board equally representing employers, employees and the public in its determination of a "living wage," thereby also necessitating consideration of the cost of living. There were several events which delayed the determination of a living wage and contributed to a 6-year lapse between the 1913 enactment of the law and issuance of the first wage orders in 1919.

The Industrial Commission completed an extensive study in 1913 - 1914 of the working conditions and cost of living of employed women in Wisconsin; and most pertinent - the constitutionality of the Oregon Minimum Wage Law (which was similar in principle to the Wisconsin law) was being challenged in the courts from 1914 to 1917, when a tie vote of the U.S. Supreme Court sustained the Oregon Law and thus helped clear the way for action in Wisconsin.


Additional Commissioner:
Fred M. Wilcox (1913-1933)

Women Working in a Factory
Women Working in a Factory
Photo Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

In 1914, the first building code in Wisconsin was adopted to help in the enforcement of the safe place statutes for all buildings and places of employment, including factories, stores, schools, theaters, churches, and hotels. Inspection responsibilities also were given to the commission. The Commission adopted the first boiler code after boiler explosions increased.

World War I began . . .


A new Wisconsin apprenticeship law required apprentices to attend school 5 hours a week, at the employer's expense.

Current Employment Statistics (CES) began, managed by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics and Industrial Commission (the program continues today!).


Emanuel Lorenz Philipp

Additional Commissioner:
George P. Hambrecht (1915-1921)

Commissioners Witte, Beck, Wilsox and Hambrecht
Commissioners are:
Edwin E. Witte, Secretary (1917-22); Joseph D. Beck; Fred M. Wilcox; and George P. Hambrecht.
Photo Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

The Wisconsin Industrial Commission created a Women's Department and assigned it the responsibility for the administration of laws concerning women and child labor, including the Minimum Wage law.


The U.S. Smith Hughes Act (Public Law 347) establishes federal-state vocational education program and creates Federal Board of Vocational Education.

The Wisconsin Free Employment Service had 31 public employment offices.

State Legislators centralized child labor permit-granting authority under the Wisconsin Industrial Commission.


Additional Commissioner:
Thomas Konop (1917-1921)

Learning Experience for Apprentices
Apprentices Learning

Occupational diseases were added to Worker's Compensation coverage.

A 22-cent minimum wage was established for women and minors 17 years of age and older.


A petition presented May 1, 1919, to the Industrial Commission by the Wisconsin Federation of Labor, the Consumers League of Wisconsin, and the Central Council of Social Agencies of Milwaukee initiated a wage action by the Commission. As required by law, the action involved appointment of an Advisory Wage Board and consideration of their recommendations and findings, as well as those of the Commission in its 1913-1914 cost of living study. After the required public hearings were held, the commission issued Wage Orders on June 27, 1919, and named their effective date as August 1,1919.

A complete safety code was developed for all mines and quarries by the Industrial Commission.

Wisconsin created the Vocational Rehabilitation program with emphasis on people injured in industrial employment accidents.


John James Blaine (1921-1927)
Fred R. Zimmerman (1927-1929)
Walter Jodok Kohler, Sr. (1929-1931)

Additional Commissioners:
R. G. Knutson (1921-1933)
L.A. Tarrell (1921-1927)
Voyta Wrabetz (1927-1955)

1921 Employment Office
1921 Employment Office


Industrial Commission Secretary:
Arthur Altmeyer (1922-33)

The Wisconsin Worker's Compensation law was held constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The law had been held constitutional by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1911.


First Workmen's Compensation law is held valid
Compensation Law is Held Vaild

Wisconsin Legislature created a new division to help workers collect wages owed by former employers.

New legislation required employers to pay all laborers, workman and mechanics on state public works projects at the "prevailing" wage rate of the area.

Development of Safety Codes were continuing as technologies evolved.


Philip Fox La Follette

Safety Guard on Machine
Safety Guard on Machine
Photo Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

The Wisconsin Legislature passed the nation's first unemployment compensation law, three years in advance of the U.S. Social Security Act which established a nationwide program.

At the above link you can learn more about about the Social Security Act and its relationship to Unemployment Insurance, Aid to Families with Dependant Children and other social programs.


Albert George Schmedeman
Philip Fox La Follette (1935-1939)

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development History Signing the 1932 Unemployment Compensation Law

Governor La Follette Signing the Nation's First Unemployment Compensation Act
Governor La Follette Signing the Nation's First Unemployment Compensation Act

On January 28, 1932, Governor Philip La Follette signs the nation's first unemployment compensation law. Also pictured in back, left to right, are: Henry Oltl, President, Wisconsin Federation of Labor; Elizabeth Brandeis; Paul Raushenbush; John R. Commons; Henry Huber Lt. Governor; Assemblyman Harold Groves; and Assemblyman Robert Nixon.


Additional Commissioners:
P. A. Napiecinski (1933-1937)
H.R. McLogan (1933-1939)

Wisconsin was the first state to establish an Unemployment Compensation program. Wisconsin issued the first Unemployment Compensation Check in the United States on August 17, 1936. It was in the amount of $15.00 and issued to Neils N, Ruud. Ruud sold it to Paul Raushenbush for $25.00 for it's historical value. The check is now at the State Historical Society. Mr. Raushenbush was a University of Wisconsin Economics Professor who later became Director of the Unemployment Compensation Division from 1932 to 1967.

The U.S. Randolph Sheppard Act created the blind vending program which was enacted to provide blind persons with remunerative employment, enlarge their economic opportunities, and encourage their self-support through the operation of vending facilities in Federal buildings. In addition to federal buildings, the program was extended to State buildings. The program continues today as the Blind Business Enterprise Program (BEP).

Wisconsin extended vocational rehabilitation services to disabled homebound.


First Unemployment Compensation Check
First Unemployment Check
Photo Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

First Unemployment Compensation check delivered
First Unemployment Compensation check delivered
Photo Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

The Interstate Conference of Unemployment Compensation Administrators was formed, with Wisconsin a member; mandate broadened to include Employment Service activities 2 years later and its name was changed to the Interstate Conference of Employment Security Agencies (ICESA).


In 1937 the Wisconsin legislature created the Wisconsin Labor Relations Board modeled after the national board. In 1967, the board was reorganized as a commission.


New Commissioners:
Mable Griswold (1938-39)
Harry J. Burczyk (1939-53)
C.L. Miller (1939-52)


Julius Peter Heil

In 1941, the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission was established to hear complaints of racial discrimination in war related industries.


Racial Discrimination in War Related Industries
Racial Discrimination in War Related Industries

On January 1, 1942 the Wisconsin Employment Service was federalized as part of the war effort. This moved oversight and administration to a federal level.


In 1943, the Wisconsin Industrial Commission was moved from the Capital Building to 1 West Wilson St., the new state office building in Madison. In 1943, the commission had 370 employees. The minimum wage was 16 to 22 cents.

During World War II, women became a vital labor resource for war materials production.


Walter Samuel Goodland

Women Working in Ammunition Plant
Women in Ammunition Plant

Wisconsin became one of first three states to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin or ancestry in employment. This law became known as the Fair Employment Law.

Protections were subsequently added for: age 40 and over (1959); gender (1961); disability (1965); arrest or conviction record (1977); marital status (1982); sexual orientation (1982); membership in the national guard, state defense force or any other reserve component of the military forces (1987); and use or nonuse of lawful products, such as tobacco, off the employer's premises during nonworking hours, i.e., smoker's rights legislation (1991). The prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation was the first so-called "gay rights" law in the nation.


The Apprenticeship Division became the state approval agency for veterans enrolled in apprenticeship or on-the-job training under the GI Bill.


Oscar Rennebohm (1947-1951)
Walter Jodok Kohler, Jr.

Wisconsin administers the Social Security Disability program through the vocational rehabilitation agency.


Vernon Wallace Thomson

Additional Commissioners:
R.G. Knutson (1952-63)
Arthur Enright (1953-59)
John H. Rouse (1955-61)

Legislation makes it illegal in Wisconsin to discriminate on the basis of age in employment.

Legislation to prohibit discrimination for organizations having contracts with the state.

In 1959, the legislature granted bargaining rights to local government workers.


Gaylord Anton Nelson

Additional Commissioner:
Mathlas F. Schlmenz (1959-65)

Federal Aid to Dependent Children changes to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

As agricultural surpluses reappeared in the 1950s, Congress considered legislation to reinstate a food stamp program. A pilot food stamp program was started under President Kennedy in 1961 and made permanent with the passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964 under President Johnson.

The stated purpose was "to raise levels of nutrition among low-income households," and "to promote the distribution in a beneficial manner of our agricultural abundance."

In 1961, the anniversaries of 2 significant Wisconsin firsts were marked: the 25th anniversary of the payment by the state of Wisconsin of the first unemployment compensation check and the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the first modern state Workmen's Compensation act. On August 31, 1961 in ceremonies hosted by President John F. Kennedy on the south lawn of the White House, the Wisconsin Worker's Compensation law was commemorated with a 4-cent stamp to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its enactment as the first worker's compensation law in the nation.

Text of President Kennedy's speech.
Larger picture of President Kennedy


Additional Commissioner:
Carl E. Lauri (1961-66)

President John F. Kennedy

WC Commemorative Stamps
WC Commemorative Stamps

U.S. Manpower Development and Training Act. MDTA in Wisconsin was administered by the Wisconsin State Employment Service. The Act began providing federal financial support for job training programs for the first time.


Wisconsin passed legislation to require buildings to be accessible to persons with disabilities.


Governor: John W. Reynolds

Additional Commissioner:
George W. Otto (1963-65)

Wisconsin is the first state to outlaw job discrimination on the basis of disability.

Open housing law was passed, and guaranteed all persons equal opportunity for housing, regardless of race, religion, color, national origin, or ancestry.


Governor: Warren Perley Knowles

Additional Commissioners:
Gene A. Rowland (1965-67)
Joseph C. Fagen (1965-70)
Edward E. Estkowski (1966-71)

Wisconsin Outlaws Job Discrimination on the Basis of Disability

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