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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014

Seven-Day Workweek Is a Slave Driver’s Dream

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I have seen the future of employment in Wisconsin that Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans dream about when they nod off to sleep with visions of non-union sugarplums dancing in their heads.

It all came back to me when Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend and state Rep. Mark Born of Beaver Dam began circulating a bill that would permit employers to work their employees seven days a week without a day off.

Before you dismiss it as just another absurd idea from a couple of vicious Republicans, you should know they’re introducing that ugly proposal at the behest of the state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC).

And that the WMC has spent millions of dollars in recent years to elect not only their very own governor, but also a right-wing majority controlling both the Legislature and the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

We’ve seen it coming. If Walker succeeds in eliminating all union bargaining rights in Wisconsin, the natural next step is to begin destroying every fundamental union achievement, including the weekend and the eight-hour day.

You may think those universal benefits are so deeply entrenched in our culture that not even far-right Republicans could dismantle them.

But employers who legally require people to work ridiculous hours for weeks on end are no ancient relics of the distant past. I know because I worked it.

No, it wasn’t the slave era on some brutal Southern plantation. It was Indiana in the 1960s. And the reason why federal wage and hour laws could be completely ignored was that the work was considered “seasonal.”

It happened during a summer off from college at a canning factory outside of town combining tomatoes and other vegetables into V8 juice.

Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t involuntary servitude. I signed up for it. It was a way to make quite a bit of money in a limited amount of time.

And it wasn’t even brutal, punishing, poverty-pay work. Those jobs were reserved for the migrant workers from Mexico who arrived every summer on their regular circuit to pick tomatoes around the U.S.

My job, in fact, was one of the easier ones inside the plant. All I had to do was stand at a big, swirling vat of V8 and do two simple things: Keep replacing the stack of lids that closed the cans after they were filled and raise a lever to refill the vat when it got down to a certain level. All day and all night.

Here’s the embarrassing part. The long hours were so mind-numbing that the hardest part was remembering to move the lever back again to stop refilling. Overflows happened often enough that a hose was nearby to wash down the outside of the stainless steel vat and the floor around it.

 

Raise the Minimum Wage

I was perfectly happy to make money I had no opportunity to spend that summer. We arrived early in the morning and left late at night for those few months.

But I also knew that this was no way for a normal person to live on a regular basis. And that the union movement’s legislating of humane working hours, the eight-hour day and at least one day off in seven was among labor’s greatest contributions to a decent American life.

Milwaukeeans, in fact, gave their lives for it. On May 5, 1886, thousands of Milwaukee factory workers, in the forefront of the national movement for an eight-hour day, walked out of local factories.

When the strikers approached the enormous Bay View iron rolling mill to urge workers there to join them, Gov. Jeremiah Rusk, even more contemptuous of worker rights than our current governor, ordered the state militia to fire on the demonstrators, killing at least seven people.

Grothman, used to defending indefensible proposals, said his bill would still require employers to obey federal law and pay overtime to anyone who voluntarily worked more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.

“It’s ridiculous when people want to work extra hours why Democrats would stand in the way of that,” Grothman said. “I don’t know why some people want some people to remain poor.”

Many more of us think it’s ridiculous that employers pay so little today that people can work fulltime and still remain poor.

Besides, how voluntary will a seven-day workweek really be if workers lose all union protections and can be fired whenever they don’t work as many hours or days without stop as their employers want?

Unlike what Walker and Republicans believe, the way to improve the lives of people and the economy in their state is not to move backward to a time of savagery toward workers when they had no protections.

It’s to move forward by raising minimum wages so anyone who works fulltime doesn’t have to work extra hours and extra jobs just to survive.

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