Labor Day 2011 is coming in just over a week. What does it mean in Wisconsin this year? Will we get the same old tired news stories about the parades, picnics and political speeches, or has Wisconsin really awoke from their snoozing to celebrate Labor Day for what it was meant to be. Will it once again be used to mourn the passing of another summer as we start school and our busy fall schedules or will we celebrate labors proud past and hopeful future?
I’m hoping this year will be different after months of rallies and protests for workers rights in Madison AND all around the state. Some areas are celebrating recent victories in the recall elections, electing two new Senators who replaced individuals who forgot that they don’t just represent corporate interest in Madison but real people. We protected and supported 3 Senators who were brave enough to demonstrate that they did.
But, are we, as labor unions in Wisconsin going to follow the status quo and quietly celebrate Labor Day or are we going to use the day as a means to keep the awakening going? We can’t afford to be happy with the status quo…
This past week, I spent time hearing the stories of my members as we work on signing them up for dues deductions. It’s heart breaking listening to Custodians who make less than $12 an hour, talk about having to consider selling their homes, or knowing they will lose it. One of them tried to refinance, but, wasn’t accepted. It is not because these individuals were living beyond their means, they were living at the level they could afford, one year ago before the Governor of Wisconsin decided that state employees needed to contribute money they earn to balance the state budget. As a result of the reduced paychecks, most of us will be spending less in the community. Even today, the Sunday before the first day of school, the parking lots at some of the big box stores were oddly empty. Contrary to what the media and others would have you believe, state employees are not paying more for their health insurance and pensions. The money being taken out of their checks is going directly to their agencies. Yes, those of us at the University are helping keep tuition lower, but at what expense? Homes lost and local economies shattered? Other public employees are already feeling it, and just like state employees, the money that is being taken out using the “tools” will be used to balance local and school district budgets. What happens with the next budget, or when this isn’t enough? Will government double the amount taken from employees? How does this end if we’re not all willing to pay for the services given, whether we work in the public OR private sector?
This week Thursday is the first day of school. Teachers are expected to be there, just like every year, happy to see the students back and ready to teach and help them become our next generation of leaders, workers and citizens. Unfortunately, teachers are facing the same issue that State Employees are as far as cuts to their salaries. In some districts teachers have been given a new set of rules that show no respect for the commitment of these professionals. In some cases, the rules appear to punish the teachers. All of this because their union and other public employee unions had the audacity to believe that they should exercise their democratic rights and support the election of public officials that support the public good and not the corporate good.
But I digress from Labor Day celebrations. How do we celebrate this year? One Labor Council in the state, Marathon County, has already informed Republican legislators from the State and Federal level that they are not welcome in their parade (which was then reversed under public pressure). Indeed, why should politicians who obviously don’t believe in what Organized Labor stands for and respect what Labor has done to create and strengthen the middle class in our country be allowed to smile and wave in a parade that is sponsored by Organized Labor. Labor Councils and unions that continue to allow that to happen may as well turn in their charters now. Why should Republicans and the Tea Party supporters be allowed to celebrate OUR day? I hope that every labor group in the state that celebrates Labor Day in some way takes the same stand. I know at our celebration, if our US Congress person comes, when he buys his hot dog, I’ll ask him how he supports labor and the middle class. I’ll ask that Republican State Representative that labor supported in his last re-election why he supported a state budget that cuts the income of a large group of his constituents.
As Labor Activists, what else can we do? Speak out. If we talk to the media between now and Labor Day, remind them what the day means. Don’t talk about the car show, parade, bands, carnival, or old people dancing. Talk about what Labor Day really means—IT’s ABOUT UNIONS! When you talk to those attending your event, remind them of that….if they don’t want to talk about unions, then why are they there? Talk about the people who came before us in labor who fought and sometimes died to get pensions, a 40 hour work week, health insurance, workers comp, minimum wage, health and safety…the list goes on. Write letters to the editor to your local paper to make sure the community remembers that Labor Day is not just a celebration of the end of summer—it is about unions and workers. No matter who you talk to about Labor Day in the next week, be proud about being a Union member. Be proud of what we have accomplished and our future. Don’t forget to tell them that we’re not going away either, we’re going to continue the fight until we help Wisconsin once again become the state that supports workers and believes in the power of all of our workers, no matter their income level. The workers (not politicians or CEO’s) who work hard to make Wisconsin If the Governor ever understands this, then Wisconsin can once again be "open for business".