A 7-Day Workweek Could Soon Be Legal in Wisconsin

In a state where unions have been mostly defanged, is there anyone to speak up against the elimination of weekends?

Darren Hauck / Reuters

This week, presidential candidate Jeb Bush was harshly criticized for saying that the solution to some of America’s economic woes could be solved if Americans worked more hours. Republican politicians in Wisconsin are trying to make this theory reality, with a proposal to allow seven-day workweeks.

Wisconsin’s GOP is trying to nix an existing law that requires employers in the manufacturing and retail sectors to give employees at least 24 hours off during each consecutive seven-day period. Currently, for an employee to skip his or her weekly day off, an employer has to get approval from the state’s Department of Workforce Development. The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce association—a staunch advocate of the bill—suggests that the step is onerous and unnecessary, since the department has approved 733 such requests over the past five years, a number they imply means that the department is rubber-stamping the requests. Supporters also suggest that the plan ultimately helps employees who want to work more hours.

But there are many who are skeptical. “I think it's been portrayed as an effort to try to help workers; it's clearly designed to benefit employers,” says Donald F. Kettl a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and the former director of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin. “Many people like extra hours, but the idea of being in a position where you're asked to work seven days [raises the question] of how much of a choice it really is.” In response, advocates of the bill suggest that coercion won’t be an issue, and if it is, employees can report business owners.

But evidence of troubling labor practices that force workers into more hours, or include intimidation or fear of losing one’s job if you turn down hours, or shifts, or complain has repeatedly cropped up in recent years, especially as more employers shift their schedule-making practices and many Americans remain desperate to hold onto any employment at all. Employees, labor supporters, and unions have railed against the increased use of on-demand labor—which often means that employees trek in to work only to be told to go home since there aren’t enough customers. Workers may also receive last-minute calls directing them to come in quickly or stay home from a planned shift. The short notice about changes can mean fluctuating hours, scrambling to find childcare, and turning down shifts even when you want to work. It also means volatile weekly and monthly income, and fear of employer retribution for not adhering to tenuous schedules. In theory, fear of retribution or feelings of intimidation when it comes to work schedules shouldn’t be happening. And ideally, if employees feel that they are being treated unfairly, they can turn to legal channels for help—but doing so on your own can be a terrifying and long process, and losing a job can leave many workers unable to make ends meet. That’s where outside assistance can play a role. Earlier this year workers in unionized Macy’s stores got their employer to agree to give them more notice about their schedules. And the United Food and Commercial Workers union helped push Walmart to implement better scheduling practices as well.

But workers in Wisconsin don’t necessarily have access to similar support, at least not anymore. Under the tenure of Governor Scott Walker, organized labor’s power has been severely depleted within the state, a radical change from the days when the state had a strong union presence. Though Walker might not have a direct hand in the current seven-day workweek proposal, his changes have certainly helped set the stage for decreased opposition to such a bill. “[Republicans] think they have the unions on the run and they want to try to do as much as they can to weaken them,” Kettl says. He adds that the alliances between Democrats and unions, and Republicans and businesses is clear and strong in Wisconsin—stronger than it is in many other states. “Every effort that is made to weaken unions is simultaneously an effort that's being made to wound the Democrats.” The push for a seven-day workweek from the Republican party is indicative of the ongoing struggle between the two parties and their allies.

According to Kettl, “There are big and deep ideological battles where the conservative wing of the Republican party is resurgent in Wisconsin and they see this as an incredible opportunity to try as best they can to push Wisconsin from blue to purple to red.”