• Worker sitting on a forklift


Lest We Forget

By Kath Michel

Labor Day, held on the first Monday of September, was designated, in 1894, as an annual federal holiday to celebrate and show appreciation for the work of labor organizations and for their contribution to the American economy.

After one hundred and six years, do we have anything left to celebrate?  The Wisconsin Governor and his ilk have waged an all-out war on unions in Wisconsin. With stout financial support from a boatload of backers including Charles and David Koch, the Bradley Foundation (whose president and CEO, Michael W. Grebe, has mentored Walker most of his political career), Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and Diane Hendricks — recipient of Walker’s infamous ‘divide and conquer’ philosophy on becoming a ‘right to work’ state, Walker and the extreme right legislature in Madison battered Wisconsin unions.

Right wing extremists and Walker’s hunger for power and promotion have fueled the relentless onslaught that began the moment he took office. Pre-written bills from the American Legislative Exchange Council combined with an opaque legislature made it idiot-proof.Worker cutting metal on a building platform 

Wisconsin has a rich labor history as well as a rich progressive history. Not surprisingly, according to a 1998 study , the degree to which there is union presence and strength in a state directly affects progressivism and policy liberalism more than any other single factor, including political party of the state leaders. 

Darryl Holter, Ph.D. and pre-eminent union historian, credits workers’ “sweat and toil, combined with their courage and willingness to engage in collective action … [who] made Wisconsin both a great economic power and a pioneer in social reform” (Workers and Unions in Wisconsin: A Labor History Anthology, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1999).

. We can thank unions for rights and benefits that we take for granted today.

  • Weekends without work*, 
  • all breaks at work (including lunch, paid vacation, family & medical leave, and sick leave),
  • Social Security, 
  • minimum wage,
  • Civil Rights Act / Title VII, 
  • 8-hour work day, 
  • overtime pay, 
  • child labor laws,
  • Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA), 
  • 40-hour work week, 
  • workers’ compensation, 
  • unemployment insurance, 
  • pensions, 
  • collective bargaining rights for employees*, 
  • wrongful termination laws, 
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 
  • whistleblower protection laws, 
  • Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) (prohibiting use of a lie detector test on an employee), 
  • Veteran’s Employment and Training Services (VETS), 
  • pay raises, 
  • sexual harassment laws,
  • Americans With Disabilities Act (AD holiday pay, 
  • dental, life, and vision insurance, 
  • privacy rights, 
  • pregnancy and parental leave, 
  • military leave, 
  • the right to strike, 
  • public education for children*, 
  • Equal Pay Acts*,  
  • laws ending sweatshops in the United States. 

That long list constitute some of the rights that labor unions have fought for and, in too many cases, died for. Those rights in red and marked with an asterisk have already been repealed by Scott Walker. The rest are on his chopping block. 

As income inequality grows and Republicans continue the assault on unions, the outlook for celebrating in September grows bleaker.

Absent a substantial union movement, the American middle class will shrink. Absent a substantial union movement, the concentration of wealth will increase. Absent a substantial union movement, the corporate domination of government will grow

. Over the past 40 years, labor grew weak while corporations grew stronger than ever before — so strong that their control of government now threatens most of the liberal agenda.

Labor Law PosterWhich is why we must turn again to the labor question, to the battle for economic power that is an inherent feature of capitalist democracy .  [” If Labor Dies, What’s Next? “, Harold Meyerson, The American Prospect, 2015A), It is imperative that we set the stage for unions to become relevant and grow again. 

Some ideas are becoming realities in small oases around the country.  All have a common thread, and that is solidarity with other worker advocacy groups.  The fissures in the labor movement have weakened it and, if not resolved, stand to destroy any chance at revivification.

One approach to growth is to widen the breadth of concernsStephen Lerner , a union organizer and strategist for Occupy Wall Street “envisions four sets of protagonists: beleaguered homeowners waging a campaign to renegotiate mortgages;

student organizations demanding a reduction in college debt;

municipalities suing banks that devised dubious deals for them;

and bank tellers seeking unionization.

It’s a strategy reminiscent of the 1930s, when tenant rent strikes and armed farmers stopping foreclosure sales were common occurrences.”

Larry Cohen , the president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), believes that in order for labor to win more rights for workers, it must pass campaign-finance reform to break the vice grip of conservatives and big money, overrule the Senate filibuster, abolish voter suppression, and legalize undocumented immigrant status.  Before doing so, we need “to build a movement of 50 million Americans for democracy.”

In light of the shrinking middle class, growing income inequality, and a resolute right wing whose greed knows no bounds, the time for unions fighting for American workers’ needs is now and it is as important today as at any time in history.