Maddow Claim About Wisconsin Towns Named Union Looks Decidedly Dubious

You can already see the apologia coming on this one -- Rachel Maddow never actually said that seven towns in Wisconsin are named Union in homage to labor unions.

Which is true, she didn't. Instead, it could not be more obvious that Maddow implied this, with trademark smarm, and more than once at that.

Maddow did so for the first time on her MSNBC show back in February, during the battle over a proposed state budget, since enacted, that would limit collective bargaining by public workers. This was happening, Maddow said, in a place that has long epitomized labor rights. As evidence, Maddow showed a map of Wisconsin with arrows pointing to seven towns named Union (video after page break) --

It's not North Union and West Union and East Union, no! They're all just called Union, Wisc. There is a Union, Wisc., in Pierce County, there is a Union, Wisc., in Burnett County, there is a Union, Wisc., in Door County where they make Death's Door Gin which is delicious. There are seven towns in Wisconsin called Union, they are all over the state.

Yeesh, imagine the headaches this must cause postal workers. Maddow then provided some context for this unusual situation with so many municipalities in the Badger State bearing the same name --

You know the whole concept of unemployment insurance, that while you're employed you essentially pay a small part of your paycheck as kind of an insurance premium for unemployment insurance? Then if you get laid off, that system pays you unemployment benefits? You know where we got that system from? Wisconsin. (map with seven towns named Union helpfully shown again) Wisconsin enacted the nation's first unemployment compensation law in 1932. You know the whole worker's comp idea, worker's compensation? You know where we got that from? Wisconsin. (once again with the map) In 1911, Wisconsin passed the nation's first statewide worker's compensation law. It eventually made it so employers had to provide payment, compensation to their employees, if the employee got hurt on the job. It made it so that employers would provide compensation for any loss of life or limb that occurred on the job. Doesn't seem like that crazy an idea. You get killed on the job or you lose an arm on the job, you or your family get compensation for that. Everything that we think of now as worker's compensation, thank you, Wisconsin!

In case any of Maddow's most devoted viewers missed her point while engaged in their recurring property-is-crime daydreams, Maddow reiterated her contention a few minutes later --

If the Democrats do not hold together in Wisconsin, then the place that gave us the weekend, the place that gave us unemployment benefits and worker's compensation and the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek and the nation's biggest public workers union and one of the first collective bargaining agreements for those public workers, the state that has seven towns named Union, the state that gave us all of that ...

.... all because of the labor movement! ( Except for the part about those towns named Union ...). Not one to let a suspicious insinuation lay fallow, Maddow dredged it up again several months later, on her show July 12 --

Wisconsin is a complex enough place with decidedly purple politics. It's expected to be a swing state in 2012, not breaking hard red or hard blue. But one thing is very clear about Wisconsin politics. It is a place where union rights matter so much that a lot of what we think of as the nation's union rights were born there. Seven protesters died in Wisconsin in 1886 facing down the governor then to get an eight-hour workday and what we now lovingly call the weekend. Wisconsin is also where they invented unemployment insurance and worker's comp. It's the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, founded in Madison, Wisc., back in 1932. If labor lives anywhere (another map shown with arrows pointing to towns named Union) in this country, it lives in Wisconsin, it was born there. The state has seven separate towns that go by the name of Union -- Union, Wisc. Seven of 'em. You figure it out.

I mean, geez Louise, could it be more obvious -- all because of the labor movement! (Except, well, not exactly ...)

Over at RedState, a skeptical Barry Popik decided to contact the Wisconsin Historical Society and received this in response --

Dear Barry Popik,

According to the book, Civil towns of Wisconsin: a guide and index to Wisconsin's civil towns from 1821 to the present, compiled by Patricia G. Harrsch, Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1998, there were a number of towns named "Union" in Wisconsin, with their date of establishment:

Union (Burnett Co.) 8 Jan. 1918

Union (Crawford Co.) 18 Nov 1862. Vacated 19 Nov. 1874

Union (Door Co.) 15 Nov. 1865

Union (Eau Claire Co.) 5 Mar. 1872

Union (Jefferson Co.) 12 Feb. 1841. Vacated 21 Jan. 1846

Union (Pierce Co.) 15 Nov. 1861

Union (Rock Co.) 17 Feb. 1842

Union (Vernon Co.) 14 Nov. 1855

Union (Waupaca Co.) 19 Nov. 1857

Irene Hansen, the Wisconsin Historical Society reference librarian who responded to Popik's inquiry, cited a second book that lists another 10 municipalities in the state with variations of Union (Union Center, Union Church, Unity, etc.) in their names. Neither of the books "lists the origin of the town's name," Hansen wrote to Popik.

In his post, Popik pointed out that "the American labor union movement really began in the 1880s. Towns named 'Union' incorporated in 1841, 1842, 1855, 1862 and 1872 most likely have nothing at all to do with labor unions. The 1861, 1862, 1865 and 1872 dates probably indicate a Civil War 'Union' influence. (Union City, New Jersey, for example, was also named during this period).

"The Rachel Maddow Show has very lazy researchers, or likes to be dishonest with the viewer, or both," Popik concluded. "Either way, a correction is needed. There's not any evidence that Wisconsin named its towns 'Union' after labor unions".

Those seven towns will change their name to Oz before Maddow runs a correction on this one. 

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts