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Ah, Labor Day. Bargains at the liquor and retail stores, one last barbecue bash in the backyard, a last splash in the city swimming pool. Time to put the summer whites away and start preparing for those cool days and cold nights that aren't all that far away.

But, as happens with so many of our national holidays, the distractions blur why it is we celebrate the day. To be sure, there will be observances at union halls and labor temples across the nation and our state on Monday — more than 2,000 people are expected at Madison's event from noon to 5:30 at 1602 S. Park St. — but most folks will hardly give a thought to what this day is all about and how it relates to their 40-hour workweeks and health insurance and pension plans that have made them part of the middle class.

It all began the first Monday of September 133 years ago with a parade down New York City streets to celebrate breakthroughs some fledgling unions had achieved with employers who had long demanded 12 hours of work, seven days a week at jobs that could maim you if you weren't careful and at wages that were hardly enough to pay the rent and feed the family. Congress made it an official federal holiday in 1884 and it has since evolved into a day to celebrate all that working people do to keep the wheels of our country turning.

Here in Wisconsin, however, these past few years haven't been the best of times for labor.

First Scott Walker's Act 10 delivered a devastating blow to public employee and teachers unions. Then the Legislature followed that by declaring Wisconsin a right-to-work state, making it tougher for private-sector unions to maintain and represent their members.

Demonizing unions has become a political sport. Some insist unions have outlived their usefulness. Others proclaim they aren't needed because there are now laws to protect workers. A local columnist is stunned that a teachers union would demand seniority rights in their contracts, oblivious to the longtime practice of employers cavalierly dismissing higher-paid veteran workers and replacing them with entry-level newcomers to save a few dollars. Tell a suddenly fired employee who's discovered all those years of conscientious work don't mean a thing — that seniority rights aren't important.  

The American labor movement has been down this road before. It has always been a difficult struggle to convince people that they're better off working collectively to get decent pay and working conditions when employers hold most of the cards. But the workplace has its surprises.

The New York Times' expose of's working conditions did just that last month. How many Jeff Bezos-like examples are out there today, where workers must put their work before their families? How many workers must live in poverty while their corporate bosses reap untold riches?

Those dreaded unions may once more have to ride to the rescue.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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