When Workers Prosper, America Does Too
Workers had to fight for contemporary labor standards, and much work still remains.
Labor Day is commonly thought of as the last blast of summer – the transition from the lazy, hazy days to the regular grind. During my teaching and coaching years, Labor Day meant meeting new faces at the high school and the launch of the fall sports season.
What gets lost in the end-of-summer merriment is the origins of Labor Day. It sprang from America’s labor movement, a hard-fought struggle that continues today. The labor movement was started by courageous men and women who suffered under dangerous working conditions, long hours, and low pay.
The “captains of industry” were lauded for empires they built on the backs of working men, women and children. The most egregious abuse of labor in our nation’s history was, of course, slavery. Africans kidnapped from their homeland enduring beatings and all sorts of cruelty to force them into working for no pay, dismal housing, and whatever food they were allotted.
As slavery ended in the South, the Industrial Revolution boomed in the North. Working conditions were dismal. People of all ages faced hazardous working conditions with insufficient fresh air, water, sanitary facilities, and rest breaks. People labored at physically punishing jobs for 10 to 12 hours per day, six days per week.
In these times, workers in Wisconsin and across the nation began to advocate for an 8-hour workday. When the captains of industry made no efforts toward reform, workers organized into unions and turned to walk-outs.
In Milwaukee, a strike on May 2, 1886, known as the “Eight-Hour Day Parade,” led Gov. Jeremiah Rusk to call out the state militia. Three days later, as the labor unrest continued, strikers headed to a mill to call on workers there to join them. The militia fired on the crowd, killing seven people and wounding four. Today it is known as the Bay View Massacre, and it has an official state observance every year on May 5th.
Similar clashes occurred across the nation as workers demanded decent pay and working conditions. Over time, a series of government regulations at the state and federal level improved conditions, such as limits on child labor, a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, occupational health and safety standards, and worker’s compensation.
While progress has been made, there is room to improve. Millions of workers still toil at poverty wages with no sick leave, no medical leave, and no vacation time.
The reforms that came with the labor movement show that when workers prosper, America prospers. Workers’ income fuels the local, state and national economy.
The major workforce challenge today is matching trained workers with employers in need of them. National labor data shows there are approximately 10.1 million unemployed in the United States and 10.1 million job openings. That’s one worker for each job opening.
How do we solve this mismatch between people looking for work, and the employers who are looking for qualified workers? I believe it takes an investment in workers, and here are two ways to do that:
Paid Apprenticeships: The most efficient way for companies to find skilled workers is for companies to train the people themselves while giving them a paycheck. Paid on-the-job training attracts plenty of applicants, and employers get to choose the applicants with the most potential. Employers can also partner with technical colleges to train people for the jobs that need to be filled. Apprenticeships are a strong incentive for people to obtain the skills and credentials they need to enter the workforce in high-needs industries more quickly.
Decent Pay and Benefits: People take pride in their jobs, and part of that pride comes from a decent paycheck. Millions of dedicated workers have a hard time making ends meet because of low pay. A person who is paid $15 per hour for 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year will earn $31,200 per year. That is before income tax and Social Security taxes are taken out. If that $31,200 comes with no vacation, no paid sick days, and no paid family leave, the employee is at risk of losing their job if they are absent due to illness or to take care of a family member.
The first Labor Day parade took place in New York City on September 5, 1882. “Working Men on Parade” read the New York Times headline. On June 28, 1894, after more than a decade of labor strikes, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law declaring Labor Day a national holiday. By then, 30 states officially observed Labor Day.
This Labor Day, on Monday, September 6, I ask you to think about how blue collar men and women built our nation’s economy. Let’s recognize and reward them for their role in our nation’s economic success.
State Rep. Don Vruwink represents parts of Rock, Walworth, Jefferson, and Dane counties, which include the communities of Whitewater, Milton, Edgerton, Footville, part of the Village of Oregon, and 15 surrounding townships. He can be reached at 608-266-3790, Rep.Vruwink@legis.wisconsin.gov, and P.O. Box 8953, Madison WI 53708.