“The President’s Perspective”
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President City of Milwaukee
Labor Day is a time that many people look forward to at the end of every summer. It is an extra day off of work, a chance to have a family gathering, and signals the start of school for many schools and universities. This holiday means so many different things to so many different people, but the origin of Labor Day is worth reflecting no matter how you enjoy the day off. We must remember the work and sacrifice that was required for this holiday to exist and, more broadly, for the rights of workers to advance.
In the late 19th century, the work week looked extremely different from what we have today. The average American worked 12 hour shifts seven days a week to afford the most basic of livings. Kids as young as five or six worked in mines and factories. Workplace safety was an afterthought for corporations and business owners. In some cases, people would work without any fresh air, breaks, or places to use the restroom. These conditions wouldn’t change because executives suddenly became altruistic and cared for the rights of their workers. It came from laborers fighting back and taking change instead of waiting for it.
Over time, unions grew and became more vocal. Strikes and rallies were organized to protest the poor conditions and drive employers to the table to negotiate conditions, salary, and hours. At one point, in 1882, 10,000 workers marched from City Hall to Union Square in New York City to show a united front against the oppression they were enduring. They won. Because of the Labor Movement, we now have weekends off, standard work-days of eight hours, and other workplace norms that we often times take for granted.
Wisconsin specifically played a huge role in the success of the labor movement. Governor Rob La Follette signed the first workers compensation law in 1911, followed by the 1932 passage of unemployment compensation. The Wisconsin Employee Relations Act strengthened the workers’ rights to organize. Our State was consistently one of the most unionized states by percentage in the country, and major unions such as AFSCME were formed here. Even though Act 10 weakened some of the union powers in our state, Wisconsin remains incredibly union proud and labor oriented.
Milwaukee has also made some major advances in labor rights. This year, the Common Council passed a resolution forming Community Oriented, Responsible and Equitable Zones. This resolution encourages businesses to set up community benefits agreements similar to the agreement the Bucks made for the Fiserv Forum. The Alliance for Good Jobs and the Bucks struck a deal to ensure wages for employees at the Fiserv Forum would be at least $15/hr. As more and more new development comes to Milwaukee, we want to ensure that the companies are stewards of the community and support a high standard of living for their workers.
In addition to their wages and physical conditions, the national and state labor communities fought for something intangible, but equally as important. They fought for their dignity. Members of our society who do the tough, thankless, important jobs organized to remind people of their value. And that value is still true today. Our society needs to reflect more often on how important the contributions of our City workers, custodial staff, manufacturing professionals, and other laborers are. This world that we live in truly could not function without them. And if you are reading this and you fall into that category, thank you.
The fight, however, is still not over. While the rights of our broader labor community were won centuries ago, the fight for equity is still on today. One of my goals in spearheading the Residents Preference Program at the City was to ensure that black and brown tradespeople would be given the opportunity to work on projects and build up their experience and capacity. That goal remains today and is one that is completely achievable. However, that one policy cannot be the end all. We have to continue to be intentional in the way we do contracting across Milwaukee and ensure that every working environment in the City is one where non-white employees are treated with dignity and respect. This is still a fight we have to undertake.
So, as we get together this Monday for family barbecues, beach time, or even just a chance to sleep in, let’s take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices of our labor community then and now. The victory of their movement centuries ago is felt in every office building, factory, and warehouse. It has given us the chance to earn a living and enjoy a life. And we can absolutely stand to show a deeper appreciation to those people who continue to defend those rights today, and take the jobs that keep our society functioning. And to everyone reading, have a safe holiday.
On Monday at 11am, there will be a parade from Zeidler Union Square Park to the Summerfest Grounds to celebrate the labor community. We hope to see a strong turnout from all neighborhoods as we remember the achievements of the working class in America, Wisconsin, and Milwaukee.