By REP. PENNY BERNARD SCHABER
This Labor Day, whether we’re throwing our last barbecues of the summer, taking in a parade, or just relaxing at home with our families, it’s is worthwhile to take a moment to consider the hard work and sacrifices of the labor movement and how those sacrifices led to the protections we take for granted today. In fact, many of the most important advancements in workers’ rights started right here in Wisconsin.
During the Progressive Era, we were the first state in the country to establish compensation for workplace injuries as a legal right with the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1911. We were also the first state to pass an unemployment compensation law, when Gov. Phillip La Follette signed the Unemployment Compensation Act in 1932. We were one of the first states in the nation to institute a minimum wage, decades before the federal minimum wage was enacted.
And in the 1950s, we became the first state to recognize public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin’s legacy as a pioneer in workers’ rights is something we can all be proud of, but unfortunately, because of the policies of Gov. Walker and his Republican allies in the Legislature, I fear this legacy might be slipping away.
One of our first priorities for protecting workers should be to raise the minimum wage. The minimum wage has not been increased for more than five years, and those years have been some of the toughest years for the economy that many of us have ever seen. In fact, because of inflation, the buying power of the minimum wage has decreased, and will continue to decrease until we do something about it. My colleagues in the Assembly and I have introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage, but despite the fact that 77% of Wisconsin voters support an increase, the Republican majority refused to allow a minimum wage bill to even come to a vote.
Gov. Walker has even gone as far as to call raising the minimum wage “little more than a political grandstanding stunt.” They have argued that a minimum wage increase would hurt job creation, despite the fact that the states that did raise the minimum wage this year have seen faster job growth than the ones that didn’t.
Giving a raise to the workers struggling the hardest to get by would stimulate the economy, because they are the people most likely to turn around and spend it right away in their community on things like groceries, new clothes, and school supplies for their kids. More importantly, it’s just the right thing to do.
Another way we’re falling short of the strong legacy of protecting workers in Wisconsin is in making sure workers are protected from all forms of discrimination. In 2009, we passed the Equal Pay Enforcement Act; I was proud to cosponsor this legislation. The Equal Pay Enforcement Act allowed workers who’d been the victims of employment discrimination, to seek compensatory and punitive damages in court.
This was an important step forward, because without the ability for workers to seek damages, employers would be able to discriminate without fear of consequences. Unfortunately, in 2012, Gov. Walker and the Republicans in the Legislature repealed this important protection, leaving workers in Wisconsin vulnerable to discrimination. We can and must do better, and I will keep fighting to reinstate this important law.
With our long history of protecting worker’s rights, Wisconsin shouldn’t be satisfied with just keeping up with other states. We should be leading the way. My Democratic colleagues in the Legislature and I have been working to do just that. For example, last year, Rep. Eric Genrich (D-Green Bay) introduced the Pregnant Worker Fairness Act.
Pregnancy discrimination is illegal under state and federal law, but right now employers are not required to make accommodations such as extra breaks or lifting restrictions for workers who are pregnant, nor are they prohibited from forcing these workers onto unpaid leave. This bill would require those protections for pregnant workers, so that women can continue to provide for their growing families throughout their pregnancies.
Many of the protections workers rely on, such as worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination laws, or even the five-day workweek are taken for granted. It’s hard to imagine a world without these laws in place. However, these laws only exist because of the dedication and persistence of the labor movement. And as we’ve seen in recent years, politicians who don’t value the contributions of Wisconsin’s workers can take protections that have been in place for generations away.
So this Labor Day, we should not only honor the hard work that got us where we are today, but also we should recognize and do the work that is needed to hold on to what we have achieved and continue to support this proud tradition of protecting the rights of all workers.
Rep. Penny Bernard-Schaber represents the 57th Assembly District and is currently a candidate for Senate from the 19th Senate District.