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:
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.