Raushenbush, Wisconsin Workers, and Me

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in February 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin to protest Act 10.

“I want a commander in chief who will...ensure that the threat from...terrorists does not wash up on American soil….If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” said my governor, Republican Scott Walker, in February 2015. His bizarre statement equating peaceful protesters and terrorists demonstrates the animosity that remains in Wisconsin between the state government and many state employees over Act 10. In February 2011, Governor Walker, in an effort to balance the state budget, introduced Act 10, a bill that would take away collective bargaining rights for most public sector employees on most topics, in addition to slashing their health benefits. In response, tens of thousands of teachers and other state workers mobilized and marched in Madison (during the winter, no less). 

As a sixth grader, I remember being floored by the huge crowds marching 90 miles away from where I live. l saw the power of regular people to organize and protest and receive national attention. Eventually, despite Democratic legislators’ leaving the state in an attempt to sabotage the bill, Act 10 passed and was later upheld by the courts. Its legacy is complicated, especially as many of the financial fixes for schools and the state budget may be short-term, and the extent of its effect on students depends on their school district. However, since the passing of Act 10, Wisconsin has been experiencing a shortage of teachers, and a dramatic weakening of teachers’ and other public sector employees’ unions. At my public high school, nearly a dozen excellent teachers have chosen to leave in the last couple years, and I sense anxiety from public school teachers across the state as they experience pay freezes and are given more classes to teach. Wisconsin was in the national spotlight during the protests, but years after the media has moved on from Act 10, students like me are living with its consequences. 

When I first discovered the Jewish Women’s Archive, my concern and love for my home state led me to immediately look for a fellow Jewish feminist who was a Wisconsinite like I am. To my surprise, I learned that Elizabeth Brandeis Raushenbush, daughter of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, received her PhD from University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she taught economics. Raushenbush studied the history of labor law as a professor, and fought to implement legislation in our state that supported workers. Her most influential accomplishment was probably co-authoring the Groves Bill, which was passed in Wisconsin in 1932. The law made it more difficult for businesses to arbitrarily fire employees. It also inspired the Social Security Act of the New Deal. My personal experiences with Act 10 led me to see the significance of labor laws and the power of government to promote employees’ rights—and to take them away.

Employment is a top priority for many Americans. In our era, the economy is undergoing serious changes, including the decline of manufacturing jobs, especially in the Midwest, and the rise of the “gig economy,” or contract work for companies like Uber. While much is changing, discrimination and inequality based on factors like race and gender remain serious issues. Raushenbush’s legacy encourages me to fight for fair laws that support employees as the labor market shifts and inequality persists.

In the spirit of Raushenbush’s work, important specific reforms that we should implement include raising the minimum wage and mandating that business offer paid sick time off and paid parental leave. Increasing the minimum wage to a fair, livable amount would provide justice for low-income workers. (It would also benefit the middle class.) Additionally, because 36% of private sector employees do not have a single paid sick day, we should support initiatives like the Healthy Families Act, which would mandate paid sick leave. Unacceptably, the US is the only other nation besides Papua New Guinea without guaranteed paid maternal leave. We need to recognize its universal benefits and require that employers offer it, and not just for biological mothers but for all new parents. For moral and economic reasons, the government should protect workers’ rights, not infringe upon them. From their promotion of income equality to their benefits for children, laws that invest in employees pay off.

We owe Elizabeth Brandeis Raushenbush a great debt for her contributions to guaranteeing employees’ rights. Inspired by her achievements, and the actions of Wisconsin public school teachers and Act 10 protesters, I am committed to fighting for fair labor laws, so employees can concentrate on doing their jobs.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Law
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How to cite this page

Biskowitz, Sarah. "Raushenbush, Wisconsin Workers, and Me." 19 December 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/raushenbush-wisconsin-workers-and-me>.