(CNN) -- Eighty-one-year-old labor historian Ken Germanson watches the news from home in Milwaukee every night, mystified.
"All those people raising their signs, protesting," he said. "Well, geez, what did our governor think was going to happen?"
Germanson ran the Wisconsin Labor History Society for nearly two decades, an organization that teaches students about the state's union heritage.
This year, students will learn 2011 is the 100th anniversary of when Wisconsin became the first state to pass a law guaranteeing workers' compensation. They'll probably be taught that the state was a major fighter in the early 19th century for the radical idea of an eight-hour workday. It is the law, after all, in the land of cheese and Super Bowl champs, that school curriculums include Wisconsin's organized labor history.
It's also possible that some of those students and teachers are today among the thousands of demonstrators who have crowded the state Capitol in Madison for weeks. They are beating drums, holding hands, doing defiant yoga, all chanting, "Kill the bill!"
The bill, backed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and many GOP lawmakers, would mostly end public unions' rights to bargain collectively. The governor and his supporters say the legislation would help ease the state's projected $3.6 billion budget deficit by, in part, increasing state worker contributions for pension and health benefits.
Workers view the bill as a way to quash their rights to negotiate for better work conditions and decent wages. Fourteen Democratic lawmakers have left the state in protest, refusing to vote on the measure, a move that got them slapped with $100 fines for every day they are gone.
Similar political and union battles are boiling in Indiana and Ohio, where bills would end or substantially weaken public unions.
Though tension in Indiana has amounted so far to little more than political name-calling, protests in Wisconsin and Ohio have drawn throngs of people from across the country, turning the debate into a national tug of war between Republicans and Democrats. Media reports and political rhetoric have framed the protests as battles between the working class and the rich. The issue has also drawn out many critics of unions who say that organized labor strikes disrupt public services and inflate wages at a rate that strains economies and taxpayers.
"The reason these protests have drawn so much energy from people across the country is that on a gut level, banding together to defend how you work has historically felt like a fundamental right to many Americans," said Patricia Greenfield, a professor at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The college itself is a symbol of how unions have grown in the United States. The school was founded by the AFL-CIO in 1969 and offers degrees in labor negotiating and union management. The courses are now mostly online so that students can work full-time.
"I teach my students that what's happening in Wisconsin is a historical pattern," said Greenfield and other historians, including Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at University of California-Santa Barbara.
"You can take it all the way back to the 1800s or the early 1980s -- when there's been a perception by the working class that they are being threatened from the right or the left, unions will push back," Liechtenstein said.
"That doesn't mean things always end well for the workers," he added.
Lichtenstein drew a parallel to President Ronald Reagan's firing in 1981 of more than 11,000 air traffic controllers when they went on an illegal strike. Gov. Walker has threatened massive public worker layoffs if the budget reform bill isn't passed.
The Federal Aviation Administration struggled for several years to replace the controllers, a highly specialized workforce. Quickly replacing teachers, police officers and other public workers could be just as tough, historians say.
"Unions know this. They understand their leverage and what employers, generally, want to avoid," Greenfield said. "It wasn't like the beginning where if you even thought about joining a union, you were toast."
The country's first union, formed in 1794, ended in disaster. Philadelphia shoemakers, then called cordwainers, were earning barely enough to feed their families, so they went on strike demanding higher wages.
The state government responded by indicting the union, alleging criminal conspiracy, and bankrupting it. Though the trial wasn't documented -- historians have only shorthand notes from a young printer -- most reports say union members had to pay a fine ($8 each) and pick up the cost of the trial, both of which were devastating blows to the workers.
The experience scared Americans away from unionizing for decades, historians say.
"Like any movement that's been beaten back, you need a strong personality to step in and take that risk, lead the way," said Cornell University Law School professor Charles Craver, a former union arbitrator who helped Florida write its labor laws three decades ago.
That person was a poverty-stricken Jewish kid born in London in 1850.
Samuel Gompers was charismatic and gregarious, with hard-knock formative years that made him a movement leader straight out of Central Casting. A few months after his 10th birthday, his family forced him to quit school so he could work as a cigar maker's apprentice to help pay the bills.
The young Gompers was fascinated by his co-workers, many who were German socialists. They taught him that employees can wield power if they united, historians say.
Gompers joined a union in his teens but was uprooted when his family (which historians say was a household of 11) emigrated to New York City in the early 1860s. They lived in tenement slums. He continued working in cigar making but watched fellow craftsmen be replaced by machines.
By the time he was in his early 20s, Gompers was elected president of a large cigar craftsmen's union and led it through a period of national high unemployment in the late 1870s when bosses lowered wages, counting on workers not complaining for fear they'd get fired and not be able to find another job. Gompers got tough with management, eventually winning benefits for workers.
Gompers' story is now being revisited. His name is trending high on Google, and the father of the 19th century U.S. labor movement is getting shout-outs on Twitter. Dozens of people with varying opinions about the protests in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana retweeted some of his famous quotes, such as: "Where trade unions are most firmly organized, there are the rights of people most respected." A young man from Glenville, New York, tweeted, "Samuel Gompers...You are the BOSS!"
In 1886, Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor, which decades later would merge with a federation of industrial unions called the Congress of Industrialized Organizations. Gompers always felt that politics and unions were intertwined, and he frequently stressed that labor unions vote for candidates that supported their cause. What better way to mobilize a bloc of voters, especially in a close election, than to have someone they can identify with knocking on doors and making phone calls?
Today, the AFL-CIO is one of the most politically influential bodies in the country, with a 12.2 million-strong membership, its site says. There are 66 unions from industry and government jobs under the AFL-CIO's umbrella, ranging from the Screen Actors Guild to the American Postal Workers Union, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks money in U.S. politics and its effect on public policy.
In 2010, the AFL-CIO spent $4.5 million in lobbying and the union was mentioned in 292 bills. The fifth-biggest receiver of AFL-CIO campaign contributions last year was Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who got $11,500, the center reports. The same year, Feingold lost his U.S. Senate re-election campaign to Republican Ron Johnson.
Johnson has said he supports Wisconsin's budget reform bill.
The AFL-CIO has had a substantial presence in Madison at the protests, and the union is amping up its presence in Ohio and Indiana.
There are other hugely politically influential unions taking part in the current protests. One is the Service Employees International Union, which has about 2 million members, half of them public employees. Another is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is credited (or blamed) with weakening former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln's Senate campaign in Arkansas last year. Labor lined up behind a more progressive challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, and nearly beat her. The result was that Lincoln had to lean a little more left in the primary, a move that many say lost her the general election.
Since Gompers' day, union activity has reflected the direction of the national economy. In the industrial 1930s, the U.S. was a railroad nation, prompting the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act by Congress. The law headed off rail strikes by letting employees negotiate with employers about work conditions. It also prohibited employers from firing workers for belonging to a union.
During that era, only about 12% of Americans belonged to unions, and the unions represented only private workers, said Craver, the Cornell professor and former union arbitrator. Public workers were not given the right to organize until the 1960s.
"The civil rights movement in the 1960s allowed public workers to have greater pull in asking for what private employees had had for years," said Greenfield, the National Labor College professor. "This has been the ethos of our country in general. As the years go on, there are greater expansion of rights to more people. Public employees were no different."
In the 1930s, private union membership rose, making a leap thanks to the United Auto Workers union. It was founded in 1935 to agitate for higher wages and organized the first successful sit-down strike at in the U.S. at a General Motors plant.
Things didn't go as smoothly at Ford Motor Co., which fought unionization. A fight between management and employees dragged on and ended with the infamous Battle of the Overpass in 1937, in which union organizers were beaten by a throng of people that included Ford servicemen.
The violence marked the history of autoworkers and drove the passion with which union members would go after their rights, especially when the auto industry made incredible profits in the 1950s.
Collective bargaining, such as that fought for by the UAW over the past 50 years to negotiate its private union benefits with its employers, is at the heart of the fervor in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.
Decades ago, the UAW was the first union to secure employer-paid health insurance and cost-of-living allowances. The UAW also got pension plans known as "30-and-out" that let workers retire after 30 years with an annual pension and benefits for the rest of their lives.
"Auto giants didn't want to say no and face a strike which would have meant a great grievance, money lost. They just didn't want to deal with it, so they gave the unions what they wanted," said Lichtenstein, of the University of California-Santa Barbara. "And a lot of people still agree that working in an auto plant is hard. After 30 years, you can't do it much longer."
Many observers have blamed years of generous pensions, along with the increasing cost of health care, for contributing to the recession, including the near collapse of the biggest auto companies in 2008. Critics say General Motors should not have given in to union demands, and struggled through arduous negotiations, when it became clear the company's market share and profits no longer matched those of previous years.
On Tuesday, Gov. Walker proposed cutting more than $1 billion in aid to schools and local governments. As he presented the plan inside the state Capitol's Assembly chamber, the thunderous chant of protesters could be heard.
"This is our House!" they shouted. "This is what Democracy looks like!"
"Let us in! Let us in!" they screamed.
Throughout the Capitol, police and other security asked protesters to show proof of identification. At one point, law enforcement kicked out protesters who had been sleeping in the building.
Ken Germanson continues to watch the budget drama unfold. He may be a student of history, but he's a modern guy. Every day, he sits at his computer and works on his labor union blog. His latest post is about one of the bloodiest union protests in American history. In 1886, Wisconsin Gov. Jeremiah Rusk called the state militia to confront protesters at a mill in Milwaukee who were marching for better working conditions.
The marchers were unarmed, Germanson writes. The militia fired, he said, and seven people were killed.
He's worried about what's happening in Madison. He doesn't think it will get violent, but he wishes there could be compromise.
He's thinking about making a road trip to the capital. For now, he is hurrying to find his jacket. Germanson is going to a rally in Milwaukee in support of the public workers.
"Should be pretty big," he says. "This is Wisconsin, you know."