Saturday February 27, 2021

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Frances Perkins’ New Deal

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 09 September 2020
in Wisconsin

frances-perkinsFrances Perkins dedicated her career advocating for workers’ rights and became a high-profile leader helping to establish programs that are fundamental to the way our country runs today. Bold leaders like her and the collective efforts of Wisconsin workers move us forward.

MADISON - Annually, our country honors the contributions of American workers on Labor Day, but perhaps it wasn’t until this year, while living through a pandemic, when many really appreciated the essential role many workers have in our day-to-day lives.

Similarly, many Americans are unaware of the historical significance of the labor movement. Even lesser known are the leaders who helped strengthen workers’ rights and establish the working standards we all know today. Like many other labor activists, the story of Frances Perkins is remarkable, yet very few know of her and her efforts to improve working conditions in our country.

union-workersFrances Perkins’ remarkable story and her contributions to the United States helped our country become the greatest economic power in the world during the 20th Century. Her efforts for fair wages, labor rights and programs for helping people in difficult times resulted in far less families living in poverty and the birth of the middle class. Perkins’ story illustrates how we, as a nation and community look out for one another. The story of Frances Perkins is also a reminder that when we pull through together, we achieve great things.

Frances Perkins built a successful career as a labor rights activist at a time when many women didn’t hold leadership positions. Her career began in the early 20th Century advocating for working families, people living in poverty and improved working conditions for adults. She also led efforts to protect children who, more often than not, faced hazardous workplaces.

Historians from the Frances Perkins Center claim that one of the most pivotal points of her career came on March 25, 1911 when she and her friends witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This tragic event claimed the lives of 146 workers in a hazardous, fire-prone workplace. Many of the victims were young women who lost their lives because nothing was done to prevent this horrific fire. This event motivated Perkins to develop policies to support working people, much of this inspiring the New Deal.

At this time, Frances Perkins was already Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumer’s League advocating for fire protections in workplaces and standard work hours for women and children. In response to the fire, New York formed a citizens’ Committee on Safety and appointed Perkins as its Executive Secretary. The recommendations from this Committee became the model for laws in states across the country.

unemployment-great-depression-jobsPerkins continued to hold high-profile roles in her career, including Industrial Commissioner in New York. As she worked to stop New York’s rising unemployment, she challenged President Hoover’s false reports that employment was on the rise and the Depression was near the end.

In 1933, Perkins became the first woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet when Franklin Roosevelt appointed Perkins as Secretary of Labor once he began his first term as President in 1933. As Labor Secretary, Perkins created a platform centered on workers’ rights, helping to establish programs that are now fundamental to the way our country runs today, including the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation.

jeff-smithAs U.S. Labor Secretary, she led the Committee on Economic Security, which helped develop the Social Security Act which instituted the Social Security program we all know today. Perkins was also a key leader in creating the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938; her work with labor leaders on this legislation helped establish a minimum wage, maximum working hours and banned child labor.

Nearly a century later, our country is facing many of the same challenges Perkins dedicated her career to solving, including a struggling economy and families unsure of what the future holds. Right now, we need to take great leaps to build the next great economy. It will take ideas from brilliant and bold leaders like Frances Perkins and the collective efforts of Wisconsin workers.  With determination, backbone and foresight, we can make it happen.


Note: Information about the inspiring life and work of Frances Perkins for this column comes from the Frances Perkins Center.

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Now is Not the Time for Senate Recess

Posted by Jon Erpenbach Press. State Senator 27th District
Jon Erpenbach Press. State Senator 27th District
State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Madison) - A former radio personality and legisla
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on Wednesday, 02 September 2020
in Wisconsin

scott-fitzgeraldRepublicans came to the floor and gaveled in Monday, but delayed action. Legislature should listen and act now, says Sen. Erpenbach.

WEST POINT, WI - The Wisconsin Legislature must rise to meet this moment. In March, Breonna Taylor was killed while officers executed a no-knock warrant on her home. In May, George Floyd was killed after being arrested by the Minneapolis Police. On August 23rd, a Kenosha Police Officer fired seven shots at Jacob Blake’s back; causing him to be paralyzed from the waist down. Reform is necessary.

In June, Governor Evers released a package of bills designed to begin to restore equal justice in Wisconsin. The bills are an attempt to address real issues that we need to take on in order to make real change. Republicans in the Legislature did not act in June. In fact it has been 138 days since they have done anything at all. Nothing to address unemployment, nothing to address the continued demands of a global pandemic, nothing to address racial justice.

jon-erpenbach-radioThe Republican answer to all of our state’s pressing issues has been to create a task force. How can we be expected to take that seriously when just 3 out of the 30 bills introduced by the Speaker’s numerous task forces have resulted in anything at all? Democrats stand ready to meet this moment and bring about the change that has been desperately needed for far too long.

Monday Republicans came to the floor and gaveled in because they had to; because the rules of a special session called by the Governor require them to. It is now up to them how they answer the demands for justice being heard around Wisconsin.

We stand with those calling for change, with those peacefully protesting injustice. We share the anger and frustration of those who want the Legislature to act. We can no longer turn our backs on this moment and wait for it to pass.

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Repair Trust in Pursuit of Racial Equality

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 02 September 2020
in Wisconsin

kenosha-jacob-blake-shooting-wsjThe Governor called for a special session of the Legislature to reform police practices and improve police accountability. As state leaders, it’s our job to make Wisconsin more just and equitable for all residents.

MADISON - This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of Americans came together at the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C to commemorate the anniversary of the March on Washington. Activists stood on the same steps, delivering remarks reminiscent to the same call to action shared 57 years ago from Civil Rights leaders.

During the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, calling for racial equality while recognizing the urgency to act. Dr. King explicitly denounced police brutality, citing its “unspeakable horrors” for people of color. Decades later, this dream memorably described by Dr. King and shared by so many Civil Rights leaders of that time, is still far from reality for so many Americans today.

Just last week, Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot 7 times in the back by police in Kenosha. To add to the horror, his three children were in the vehicle and witnessed the whole thing. There are so many questions that went through my head in the aftermath of this horrific encounter. But what I do know, for certain, is there are things our generation can do to continue the work for racial equality.

Back in June, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Governor Tony Evers and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes introduced 9 bills aimed at reforming police practices. This package of legislation included measures to establish a statewide use of force standards for all law enforcement agencies; prohibit the use of chokeholds and no-knock search warrants; create a civil cause of action for unnecessarily summoning a law enforcement officer; and more.

Since they introduced this legislative package, the Majority Party hasn’t taken any action on it. This isn’t the first time Republicans have neglected to act while Wisconsinites are struggling and asking for support. The Majority Party has also failed to fix Wisconsin’s outdated unemployment insurance system, act on gun safety bills and provide additional relief during this pandemic.

Last week, in response to the Jacob Blake shooting, Governor Evers called a special session for the Legislature to act on these policing reform bills. I was wholeheartedly prepared to participate in this special session to address the root causes of these appalling encounters. This is what we are called to do when we are elected: repair the broken trust and work toward a more just, equitable state for all residents. Unfortunately, the Majority Party didn’t even show up for session; their absence signals their ineptitude and lack of responsibility, especially at a time when Wisconsin needs responsible leaders.

I know many still believe people of color are overreacting to these cases of police brutality, but when you dig deeper, you find there is a history of racial injustice that makes someone with dark skin leery and fearful of police.

Soon after the George Floyd murder, I saw a question, “what age were you the first time a police officer pointed a gun at you?” posted on Facebook that really brought it home for me. The responses were shocking. Black men shared their first encounters that occurred when they were 17, 14, 12 and even 10 years old. That post more than any helped me realize my privilege as a white person. Never in my life have I ever feared that a police officer would pull out his gun and aim it at me. It’s hard to imagine living your life fearing a police officer, rather than being relieved that law enforcement has arrived to protect you.

jeff-smithTrust is key to any relationship. When trust is broken, it’s almost impossible to restore without a long and painful process. We need to start that process immediately. We all must admit fear and distrust has torn us apart; politicians must quit feeding off that fear and get to work to build the trust we need to survive together.

A friend and colleague who represents Milwaukee once said, “Our issues are your issues, just as your issues are our issues.” We must keep these words in mind while remembering the sacrifices of so many in the pursuit of racial equality.

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Everyone Must Do More to Interrupt Systemic Racism

Posted by Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Robert Kraig
Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Robert Kraig
Robert Kraig is Executive Director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, 221 S. 2nd St.,
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on Saturday, 29 August 2020
in Wisconsin

kenosha-militia-streetCommentary on the arrest of the white supremicist militia member who murdered two Black Lives Matter protesters and injured a third in Kenosha, and law enforcement’s apparent lax response before and after he shot his victims.

MILWAUKEE, WI - As a white and gay man, I am struggling like many of you to figure out what I can best do to support our African American friends and neighbors in this horrific moment. I did not make a new statement yesterday because I am trying, as many of you are, to gather my thoughts and listen to the people of color leaders within Citizen Action, my network, and in the media.

In the eloquent statements and actions of so many Black Americans, from Marquette alum Doc Rivers, the professional sports strike begun by our own Milwaukee Bucks, Jacob Blake’s parents, scholars such as Princeton’s Eddie Glaude, and so many across the land, they are pleading for all of us to do more. If we are not Black Americans we can never fully understand the depths of their feelings, but we can listen with an open heart and act on their moral appeals.

robert-kraigI believe that each and every person with love in their hearts must look into their souls and decide what they can do to immediately interrupt and begin to unwind systemic racism. If we are being honest with ourselves, most of us, myself included, are not doing enough. Merely sympathizing or signalling that you are on the right side is inadequate. Merely voting for the better candidates is not enough. The scary thing is that despite the progress against overt Jim Crow racism since the 1960s, we seem to be reliving the same pattern of events which led to its reimposition by other means. The depressing pattern is all too familiar:

  • A Black man is assaulted with deadly official force in a situation that no reasonable person believes a white man would have been, a pattern that is over 400 years old.

  • Community members and allies rise up using the most sacred American right of free speech to demand justice and immediate action to end the structural racism which devalues and dehumanizes all African Americans.

  • When there is not a timely and satisfactory response from official authorities (timeliness is defined by the harmed community, not others), and property destruction takes place, attention is shifted to property damage and white fears, and away from the true victims of on-going dehumanization and oppression, and the act of official violence that perpetrated the chain of events.

  • kyle-rittenhouse-rifleOften evidence emerges that members of law enforcement took a lax approach to white people committing violence. In Kenosha, in shocking contrast to the immediate use of deadly force against Jacob Blake, there is compelling evidence that law enforcement allowed right wing militia to roam the streets, interacted with the white nationalist who murdered two Black Lives protesters, including the murder before he committed his crimes, and let him flee the scene even as onlookers pointed him out, and he walked towards a police vehicle with his hands up. There is also evidence of some white community leaders enabling the entrance of right-wing vigilantes with apparent impunity.

  • The politicians that use strategic racism to advance themselves turn attention away from the true victims, and toward the destruction of property, using dog whistle racist appeals such as “looters,” “thugs,” and “rioters” seeking to tarnish the entire largely peaceful liberation movement. They turn attention away from the true victims of racism, and the official violence which sparked the protests in the first place, and to white fears and the traditional racist privileging of property over human life. The evidence is overwhelming that a super majority of the violence now and for the past 30 years comes from far right-wing extremists like the man who murdered two peaceful protesters, but you would never know it listening to the media and our elected officials. The lie that the threat of violence comes from liberation movements and Black and brown people is perpetrated by self-interested politicians, their elite backers, and abetted by media of all kinds.

  • Politicians who sympathize with the Black community and count on it for their elections empathize with the victims, their communities, and the liberation movement, but out of fear or political calculation also start to focus attention on property and further militarize the situation in ways that intimidate and endanger the directly impacted community and peaceful protesters. They counsel patience and obedience to process, and offer half measures that do not even begin to get at the fundamental reasons Black life is so devalued in a country we call the land of the free.

Taking real and appropriate action is hard in real time, it is only easy from the safety of history. It is too painless now to signal support for Black Americans today by identifying with liberation movements and their heroic leaders of the past. But the truth is that the bloody march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge or the 6th Street Viaduct, the Mason-Dixon line of Milwaukee in the 1960s, would not have been necessary if all people of conscience had stepped forward to make the hard and costly decisions required of them. Martin Luther King made an eloquent statement on this theme in his justly famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

The ugly truth is that the people just like us in the past did not act because there were costs. Elected leaders could lose votes, organizational leaders could risk their positions, corporate leaders fear a lose of customers or standing with their peers, and average people worry about offending friends, neighbors, and family members, or losing privileges. It is cost free to stand with MLK and John Lewis now, it is not so to really and truly stand with Blacks Lives Matter.

While empathy and individual efforts to increase racial consciousness are useful enterprises, a much deeper and more challenging level of commitment is called for by the leaders of modern Black liberation. In fact, far too many corporations and elected officials are embracing opposition to structural racism and giving symbolic support to Black Lives Matter and yet at the same time draining these terms of their actual content, as if saying the words or putting them on a sign or a website is enough. The same has been done to Martin Luther King, who fought and died for true economic equality, not merely the technical right to vote or a mythical “colorblind” society that has never existed. For the real MLK, people with vastly unequal economic means could never have the power to be truly free. One of the reasons white people are not slaughtered on suburban streets by their own police is both race and the economic power they have to fight back.

The most compelling African American thought leaders I have read on the subject, Michelle Alexander’s penetratingly eloquent The New Jim Crow and Ibram X. Kendi’s brilliant pair of books Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist, call for every moral person to use their power to disrupt and unwind structural racism. For Kendi, you can’t meet his definition of antiracist without both recognizing the deep racism in our society and in each of us, and taking effective action to replace racist structures. For him the defining mark of antracism is effective deeds, not words or personal reflection. A perfect example of this is the professional athletes who have gone beyond words to withdraw their labor until meaningful action is taken. They have used their power to disrupt the system and create a crisis of conscience. The same is called for from all those with substantial power such as our political leaders, corporate leaders, and at a lesser level of power nonprofit leaders such as myself and every person with love in their hearts for all humanity.

There are some immediate policy actions in our Monday statement, but consider these more of a rough draft than all that needs to be done to create a true antiracist America.

Chart Graph: Almost All Organized Violence is from Right-Wing Groupsviolence-right-wing-caw

(Source, Center for Strategic and International Studies,

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It’s Time to Act on Student Debt

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 26 August 2020
in Wisconsin

uwgb-studentsThe Student Debt Task Force released its final report to Governor Evers, outlining 8 policy recommendations Wisconsin must act on to help students and families.

EAU CLAIRE, WI - Over the last four months, I was honored to participate in the Governor’s Task Force on Student Debt, established by Governor Tony Evers to address the student debt crisis impacting more than 700,000 Wisconsinites. The latest statistic from the Board of Governors shows the level of student debt owed has reached a mind-boggling $1.7 trillion; Wisconsin, alone, has more than $24 billion in student loan debt, according to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

After learning the extent of the student debt crisis, the Task Force came prepared to strategize on ways to provide necessary relief for Wisconsin families. Just last week, the Task Force released its final report to Governor Evers outlining the crisis and providing 8 recommendations to help solve it.

For all the work we did on the Task Force, one thing is clear: the time to act on student debt relief is now. As a state, we must adopt these policy recommendations and fix this crisis to strengthen Wisconsin’s future.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Task Force was able to hold 8 virtual meetings. This format allowed us to hear testimony from current and former students, parents, borrowers, lenders and officials from other states. Some information was familiar to those of us who have navigated the system with our own children; other information highlighted the urgency in addressing this growing threat to our way of life.

uwec-campusIn addition to the obvious negative effects student debt has on personal finances, it also has an enormous negative impact on our nation’s economy. Student debt delays many graduates from starting their careers or contributing to the marketplace by buying a home or car. Consequently, student debt also affects one’s saving habits. Student debt makes it more difficult for graduates to save for retirement or even get into the habit of putting money aside for emergencies.

As with so many other issues, the state and federal government have passed erroneous bills that have made things worse or have ignored the problem altogether, allowing student debt to become the monster it is today. Due to congressional action, debtors aren’t able to refinance student loans like you would with your home loan. At the state level, the Wisconsin Educational Approval Board lost much of its funding and authority to truly look out for borrowers’ best interests.

jeff-smithAfter we heard from the diverse group of speakers, the Task Force initially thought of 37 recommendations to address the student debt crisis. From there, the Task Force divided into three groups to determine the most pertinent and immediate solutions. As part of the “Consumer Protection” group, I discussed with fellow group members what action Wisconsin can take to ensure residents are informed and protected when making this significant investment in their education and lives. The other groups were “Government, Public and Private Subsidies & Financing Solutions” and “Borrower Education and Management of Higher Education Expenses.”

We winnowed down these 37 original ideas by combining and clarifying needs until we had 8 strong recommendations the entire group could accept as realistic policy changes we can implement at the state level. These recommendations won’t fix everything for everyone, but they will move us in the right direction. Collectively, the Student Debt Task Force proudly released the following recommendations:

1.       Create a borrower Bill of Rights and Student Loan Ombudsman to protect borrowers throughout the entire borrowing process.

2.      Enhance proprietary school regulations and reinstate the Wisconsin Educational Approval Board to strengthen oversight over predatory lending practices.

3.      Expand access to financial literacy education.

4.      Increase need-based and targeted aid for post-secondary education.

5.      Provide loan counseling.

6.      Implement loan forgiveness programs.

7.       Modify existing refinancing practices to benefit more borrowers.

8.      Create state student debt relief tax credits for borrowers and employers.

Many of us can relate to how confusing and misleading the system can be. We must ease the burden for young people to get their footing while pursuing their dreams and future. We must prioritize this issue and take action next session.

You can read the full Student Debt Task Force report at

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