Our Views: No LaborFest, no parade reflect labor's decline

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Gazette Editorial Board
September 6, 2015

Janesville won't have a Labor Day parade Monday.

No bands.

No free candy.

No politicians.

LaborFest President Jeanna Maasz told The Gazette on Aug. 21 the cancellation had to do with problems with “services” linked to the event, but she declined to give specific reasons why it was scrubbed on short notice.

The difficulties being suffered by LaborFest and its parade, events that were Janesville traditions since 1991, are a reflection and perhaps a symptom of organized labor's diminishing stature here and elsewhere in Wisconsin.

The number of union members in Wisconsin dropped from 456,000 in 1989 to 306,000 in 2014, a decline of 33 percent. During the same period, the percentage of Wisconsin workers represented by unions dropped from 20.9 percent to 11.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The line chart of Wisconsin union membership takes a steep drop between 2011 and 2012, likely the effect of Act 10, the state legislation that stripped most public employees of their ability to collectively bargain.

So what should people not attending a parade be thinking about on Labor Day?

“They should be thinking about reaching down and lifting the lower classes up,” said Tim Silha, president of United Auto Workers Local 95, the local that used to represent workers at the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.

“There are so many poor and underprivileged in our community. The food pantries … are being taxed to their limits by need in our community. I believe that's what started the labor movement—the bottom tier needed help,” Silha said.

He blames the decline of organized labor on companies exporting family-supporting jobs.

John Beckord, a voice of local business as president of Forward Janesville, had a similar explanation for the decline of organized labor.

“The globalization of production and the rapid movement of capital made the production of goods in particular something that has to be done on a globally competitive basis,” Beckord said.

Beckord also pointed out:

—Many of the laws, rules and regulations that make workplaces safer weren't in place when the labor movement was at its peak.

—The advance of technology has undermined many entry-level and low-skilled jobs.

On Labor Day, Beckord urged people to appreciate the workers who make our lives more convenient, more fun and less stressful.

“I think it's incumbent upon on us to not forget those folks who are there for us every day,” Beckord said.

Silha declined to talk about Local 95 membership numbers, but he pointed out that Local 95 still represents workers at five area companies and has 4,500 retirees.

He sounded upbeat about the future of labor. His family's business, Frank Silha & Sons Excavating, is a union shop and is busier than ever, he said.

“It seems like history repeats itself—they get beat down until they rise up again,” Silha said. “We are a union excavating business, and I don't see a reason to change that.”

And as for LaborFest, Silha expects it to return next year.

“I don't think it's the end of LaborFest,” he said. “I think they'll regroup.”

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