There are no 12-gun salutes or moving tributes, but Labor Day stands alone among all American holidays as a tip of the hat to us average Joes and Janes. And what better way to celebrate labor than a day off?
Until recently here in Wisconsin, that is.
Here’s what the U.S. Department of Labor says about this day: “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
That’s all well and good, but private- and public-sector workers in Wisconsin and across the country have been taking it on the chin for years, Labor Day or not. The litany of losses includes union concessions, disappearing pensions, corporate decisions that send American jobs elsewhere, consolidations that lead to job losses, declining wages and benefits and other indignities.
To be sure, many American employers, big and small, treat their workers fairly, provide attractive workplaces and support local communities. These are the places where workers enjoy the respect and dignity they deserve. Nothing like a good boss to make the place where you spend 2,000-plus hours a year bearable.
But it would be a huge stretch to say workers are better off today than a few decades ago. Or that they have more workplace rights than in the past.
Well, if you’re a laborer who wants to work seven days a week with no days off, you now have that right, thanks the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker. Before careening onto the presidential campaign trail, Walker signed a new state budget that includes a provision making it easier for factory and retail employees to work seven days straight. Under the previous law, factory and retail employees were required to take a whole 24 hours off every seven days unless they got explicit permission from the state. Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? Now, employees can specify in writing to voluntarily waive that law. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, not exactly the working man and woman’s friend, has long supported the seven-day work week. The group continues to spin the new law as a benefit to workers.
Labor scholars say this flies in the face of logic and the power dynamic at many workplaces. But others, like former state Sen. Glenn Grothman, who is now a U.S. congressman and who first sponsored a bill seeking to change the law, think they know better.
"It's ridiculous when people want to work extra hours why Democrats would stand in the way of that," Grothman told the Associated Press back in 2014. "I don't know why some people want some people to remain poor." Of course, Grothman could be counted among the lawmakers who vigorously opposed raising the minimum wage. So much for the “poor” argument.
Arguments for or against the law aside, doesn’t logic tell us it is anything but good news for most average workers?
Coercing people to work long hours is nothing new, laws notwithstanding. Newspapers were among the violators for many years. Reporters who worked in non-union shops were often expected to work as many hours as the job required and to sign pay slips that said they had worked the standard 40. There was no such thing as overtime in many cases. Reporters at some of these papers finally had enough and filed unfair labor practices complaints against their employers. And they weren’t alone. The practice was and is common in many other workplaces. The pressures are great, and in this day of neutered unions, the power is concentrated in the hands of the bosses.
Imagine yourself a young person trying to make good at a new job. Your employer suggests one way to get ahead is to voluntarily agree to work seven days a week. What decision will you make? So much for a Sunday off.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
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