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Defending the 8-hour Day in Madison, WI

by Joe Mingle |
December 1, 1999
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Madison, WI - This past fall, workers and students organized to defend the 8-hour day, supporting workers at the Rock-Tenn Corporation's paper factory on the Near East side. The struggle ignited when Rock-Tenn Management demanded workers change from 8 to 12-hour shifts during contract negotiations with PACE (Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers) Local 1202.

Building on strong support in the plant, PACE Local 1202 engaged in a concerted campaign to mobilize community backing for their struggle, including outreach to other unions and the University community.

During previous contract negotiations, Rock-Tenn workers had beaten back the employer's demand for 12-hour shifts, but with the current contract about to expire, the 12-hour shift was still on the table.

12-hour shifts and a continuous production model are standard in about 70% of the paper industry, so workers had good reason to be concerned. Despite pressure from the employer, PACE 1202 stood firm because they know 12-hour shifts mean more accidents, more stress, and less time for family and other interests. They also knew they needed community support to help win the battle.

The South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), the regional AFL-CIO council, activated its Street Heat Network of local union activists with impressive results. "SCFL has built up a sizable list of committed union activists who will turn out to support local labor struggles," said Joe Mingle, a member of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 2412 and SCFL's Organizing Committee. "I think it's clear that this time they really made a difference."

On the eve of their contract expiration, when Pace Local 1202 called for a rally to "save the 8 hour day in Madison," union activists turned out in droves. According to SCFL President Jim Cavanaugh, at the peak of the rally, there were more that 350 activists picketing outside the plant including representatives from 38 different local Unions!

Student Support

Students from the University of Wisconsin also took up the call and worked to support PACE 1202. Several student organizations built a Solidarity Committee on campus and helped educate the university community about the paper workers' battle. In addition to leafleting at the student union for the rally, UW students organized two public forums for PACE 1202 workers to come share their story with campus activists.

"The students of today are the workers of tomorrow," says Bob Hemauer, a member of the Student Labor Action Coalition. "Unions and the Labor Movement set the working standards for everyone in the country, workers, professionals, even management types. I don't want to work 12-hour shifts when I enter the workforce, so this is my battle too!"

As a result of the solidarity of workers in the plant, and the support of the community, Rock-Tenn management withdrew their demand for 12-hour shifts just before the holidays. Unfortunately, many difficult issues remain on the table, so the struggle isn't over yet. Negotiations are ongoing and the possibility of a sharper conflict still looms. Regardless of what the future holds, PACE 1202 workers can celebrate a small victory.

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