August 29, 2007

What Labor Day Really Means

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

On the first Monday of every September our nation celebrates Labor Day.  For many of us, that means a day off filled with parades, picnics, barbecues, & family gatherings.  Yet how many of us truly understand what Labor Day means, and the sacrifices that it represents? 

Did you know, for example, that Wisconsin labor unions led the way in the push to create an 8-hour work day in 1886?  It is tough for many of us to imagine, but over 150 years ago most people were expected to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week in some of the worst conditions imaginable.  What changed all that?  Two words: Organized Labor.

It was these progressive unions that helped to pass nationwide workplace safety regulations and introduced the idea of employment benefits.  It was dedicated progressives in labor unions that ensured a 5 day work week, literally bringing us weekends as we know it.

It was these unions that made Wisconsin the first state to pass an unemployment insurance law, and in 1931 Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to create a worker’s compensation system.  This system covered not only unionized employees, but indeed all workers in the state of Wisconsin.  It was from this victory that states across the nation took their cue, and passed their own measures.

Wisconsin also took a leading role in passing restrictions on child labor, and enacted some of the toughest workplace safety standards in the nation.  Our state can also boast of being one of the first to unionize state and local employees, and the first to pass a public employee collective bargaining act. 

Of course, these rights that many of us take for granted were not gained without much pain and sacrifice.  During the fight for the 8-hour work day, national guardsmen open-fired on union organizers in Bay View, killing 5.  Thousands more have endured intimidation, police brutality, and lost employment to stand up for fairness, safety, and respect.

It is for those who devoted their lives, and those who lost their lives, that we celebrate Labor Day every September.  I hope that as you enjoy a day of fun with your family, you pause to remember the sacrifice and bravery those who truly put their lives and livelihood on the line for workers rights.