Wisconsin Workers Lose Their Weekend

The Good Lord may have decreed a day of rest, but in Wisconsin it has been quietly taken away.

While most of us were enjoying the fireworks as the long July 4 weekend began, Wisconsin Governor and presidential hopeful Scott Walker engineered the end of the weekend by pushing through a “reform” of Wisconsin employment law that allows workers to “voluntarily” surrender their right to 24 hours off after six days of work, the previous state minimum. The provision was part of a muddle of last-minute grab-bags attached to the passage of the state’s budget, among them a strip-mining of the state’s living wage standard, now reduced to a still “lame” minimum wage. (State law had previously required that Wisconsin's minimum wage "shall not be less than a living wage," described under the law as one that provided "reasonable comfort, reasonable physical well-being, decency and moral well-being," a definition that Leo XIII might well approve.) But the end of the weekend provision stands out for sheer audacity. Take a gander:

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56. One Day of Rest in Seven. Include the provisions of 2015 AB 118 to permit an employee to state in writing that he or she voluntarily chooses to work without one day of rest in seven. Specify the provision first apply to union contracts on the day the collective bargaining agreement expires, or is extended, modified, or renewed, whichever comes first.

In an era typified by drastic declines in worker autonomy against ascendant corporate and business power, how many industrial and retail workers in Wisconsin will now “volunteer” to surrender their day of rest under pressure from bosses insisting that production step up to meet demand surges? These are among the conditions that lead to calls for labor abuse investigations in China, labor standards which Americans could be forgiven for believing were permanently behind them. Beyond that the idea makes little practical economic sense: what the over-productive U.S. economy needs is, apologies to Jeb Bush, not workers working nonstop but workers recreating more, pumping their hard-earned dough into their local economies, creating new jobs and taking advantage of the piddling time-off they are allowed. U.S. workers are actually hurting their productivity and the economy by neglecting to take recuperative time, even when it is owed them. And America's infamously stingy sick and personal leave policies already should be a national scandal—a threat to health and the general welfare.

But if you’re surprised, you haven’t been paying attention. Walker’s move against the weekend is only the latest deterioration of hard-won labor standards of the early 20th century; we are now deeply trudging into mid-19th century territory with the eight-hour day, overtime pay and now the sanctity of the weekend all under serious threat as the unions which used to protect labor conditions have been ground out. Divide and conquer was Walker’s bitter if successful strategy when it came to pitting private sector workers against public sector unions in his state—non-union workers, goaded into resentment of public sector union members because of negotiated pension benefits, saw little reason to stand shoulder to shoulder with unionized fellows. It is a painful irony that "employment reforms" which serve to diminish union power and whittle down labor standards have been achieved in the state where many of the nation's working rights were first hard-won.

If Wisconsin’s endless work-week is evidence of Walker’s vision for the rest of working America as president, may he remain only Wisconsin’s headache. This can’t become a template for the rest of the nation. May this odious backpedal on the sanctity of family life and the human right of recreation and pursuit of happiness be repealed as soon as possible. Walker and his ilk may hope to walk the nation back to the late 19th century, but he should be careful what he wishes for: the era he apparently yearns to rediscover also birthed the only significant socialist/progressive movement in U.S. history—also with deep roots in Wisconsin history—and notorious (if possibly fictitious) hard fellas the likes of the Molly Maguires.

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Joshua DeCuir
2 years 4 months ago
"Divide and conquer was Walker’s bitter if successful strategy when it came to pitting private sector workers against public sector unions in his state—non-union workers, goaded into resentment of public sector union members because of negotiated pension benefits, saw little reason to stand shoulder to shoulder with unionized fellows. " Yeah, because the over-reach of public sector unions raising millions of dollars to elect the person who "negotiate" their labor agreements supposedly in service to the common good has nothing to do with the low opinion held of these groups. Scott Walker may not become President, but he seems destined to at least follow Barack Obama as the politician who most induces spittle-inflected pablum hurled at them by their political opponents - who, not by coincidence, they have defeated at nearly every turn. Exhibit A would be Richard Trumka's statement on the day he announced: a statement of a sore loser if ever there was one.
Vince Killoran
2 years 4 months ago
Yes, Walker is certainly popular. Too bad his supporters must now live with the consequences: slow employment recovery, low morale among primary and secondary teachers, and a public Ivy university where top-notch researches are hastening to leave. Sad to see workplace conditions decline and family life suffer as well.. As organized labor has declined, inequality has increased. What was within reach for millions of Americans a half century ago--home ownership, a living wage, higher education, leisure time--is now not event glimpses for many with falling rates of unionization. What's to stop chiseling employers? Capitalism inherently destabilizes communities and families.
J Cosgrove
2 years 4 months ago
How many states have essentially the same law as Wisconsin? Then? Now?
amy r
2 years 4 months ago
In 2013, my husband's employer (a large multinational corporation) forced everyone at his plant to work seven days a week for seven straight weeks; they then had three weeks of normal five day schedules before seven day weeks resumed for four more weeks. At that time, we learned that only California and Wisconsin mandated at least one day off per seven days. Our state, like the majority, has no limits on mandatory overtime whatsoever. The company generously offered workers up to one full shift off every 18 days during that nightmare (but they were not allowed to take those days on weekends). My husband missed three major family events (high school graduations of kids we are close to, including our nephew), Mother's Day, and Father's Day. Another worker was forced to postpone his wedding at huge expense. One woman missed her own son's high school graduation and a man missed his daughter's college graduation. For people on second shift and third shift, in particular, family time was decimated as sleep schedules on those shifts make most family time happen on weekends which were gone. Workers who attended churches that only worship on Sunday mornings were unable to attend. Anyone who called in sick had to have a doctor's note prior to doing so, but there was little or no time to go to the doctor. Any employee who refused to comply with this schedule was fired (and four were before it was over--one woman who was very ill). Personally, I can tell you that this was one of the most difficult times in our marriage; we were extremely disconnected during it. When he was home, he was sleeping as the schedule was beyond exhausting. This is not a family friendly policy. It is physically bad for workers. And I have no doubt that if the law said employees had to sign off that they voluntarily agreed to do it, in this case, the company would have made it clear that you can sign or you can find a job elsewhere.
J Cosgrove
2 years 4 months ago
Amy, Thank you for the information and how the law may affect someone like you and your family. The author made it look like the country was reverting to medieval practices when in fact the new law in Wisconsin is essentially the law of the nation for nearly everyone and has been that way since the country began. Maybe there can be some fine tweaking to prevent situations like yours so they do not get too egregious.
Vince Killoran
2 years 4 months ago
It's called the "race to the bottom" and it's not good.
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 4 months ago
Re: Amy R's Comment-- The stresses on employees and families resulting from so many weeks of continuous work are serious. Unless there was some real emergency (as might occur, say, in Defense contracting for urgently-needed products) I do wonder about the wisdom of any employer requiring such extended, uninterrupted work-weeks. It seems to me that much would be lost in efficiency, quality-control, safety, and certainly in morale, and the firm risks losing some really good workers. I do wonder why cases such as this tend to come to light after the event, when little can be done to find a better solution. If management cannot find a better way to deal with the crunch in a way that is more acceptable to workers, then a little consumer pressure might be applied, especially if the company's product is popular and in general use. Reporters usually like to get hold of such stories, and inquiries from the press can also convince managers to explore better solutions. Again, I'm assuming there was not some real and unavoidable emergency that required this unusual scheduling. Hopefully after the crisis that precipitated so much overtime, there was time for families to recover and even enjoy some vacation time, using some of the overtime pay that the law does require in such cases, though I certainly realize that this may be inadequate compensation for the loss of special occasions, holidays, etc.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 4 months ago
Are divorce rates notably lower in marriages where both spouses are union members? I've heard this is true, but I'm seeking a source and specifics.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 4 months ago
Walker perhaps encourages a family model rife with risk…kids at school weekdays, parents at work weekends.

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