Monday, February 21, 2011

Labor Exhibit In Madison; Timely Opening, Timely Remarks

Former Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Secretary Roberta Gassman offers some passionate and poignant remarks about Wisconsin working people as an arts exhibit in their honor happened to open last week at the Overture Center in Madison.

I'm thinking there are a few dozen Republican legislators and one Governor who ought to stop by and see how and why labor should he honored.

I'm reprinting her remarks below.


Remarks of Roberta Gassman, Former Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development

At opening of exhibit at Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters:

“Wisconsin Labor: A Contemporary Portrait”

February 18, 2011,

James Watrous Gallery, Overture Center for the Arts

Thank you to Executive Director Margaret Lewis and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Your support for this exhibit of beautiful photographs of Wisconsin workers helps tell the story of the importance of labor and working people to our state.  I am so proud, as Wisconsin’s past labor Secretary, to have sparked this project, with my terrific Department of Workforce Development colleagues, and the help of the Wisconsin Arts Board and an amazing group of artists.

I will share with you, as I was asked to address, how we came to launch this project, but first I will offer a few thoughts, especially given some of the labor issues now before our state.

For me, this is very personal.

My grandparents were immigrants who came to this country with nothing except the skills of their hands, a rich heritage and their will to escape deadly religious persecution.  One grandfather was a tailor and the other a baker.  The baker was a union member, and this protected his hours and safety and working conditions and he, eventually, with my grandmother, was able to build a middle class life for his family.

I was the first in our family to go to college.

It was a thrill to work at DWD because it is Wisconsin’s labor department.  Its work, carrying out Workers Compensation, Unemployment Insurance, apprenticeship and more, all national models and started right here in our state, follows over 100 years of thoughtful, deliberative and principled “Wisconsin Idea” work by University of Wisconsin-Madison and state elected leaders.

Before Wisconsin’s landmark labor laws, workers were unprotected when losing limbs and even dying on the job; they were destitute as the Great Depression hit.

Great thinkers came together because they knew workers, families and our economy and state would be better off with safe, stable and protected workers and working conditions.

At DWD, it was an honor to work closely with our department’s labor unions to promote harmonious labor relations.

I sat around the table in my office, quarterly, with the leaders of all of our department’s unions to talk through challenges and problem-solve together.  I continued this practice that had been launched by previous administrations and not my political party.  This informal process supported over 50 years of Wisconsin collective bargaining law and this has been a proud Wisconsin and now national tradition.

So regarding this project, when I came to the department our walls were bare and so was our pocketbook.  Then we learned that we had funds in our Percent for the Arts account that we had earned through various past building remodeling projects. 

I thought, let’s beautify our building and inspire our employees and our visitors through exhibiting images of Wisconsin’s diverse, talented and hard-working employees, whether in the private sector or the public sector: the farmers who grow our food; the machinists who make the highest quality products in the world; those who teach our children, keep us safe and care for our parents and the sick; those who innovate and create new technologies; and more. 

These images are now on permanent display in the Department of Workforce Development, thanks to this project.

I am so pleased that many more will get to appreciate them through this now very timely exhibit.

Many thanks to the terrific state employees, the Arts Board volunteers, the Academy and the extraordinary photographers who have brought us these amazing photographs.  May they inspire us to honor our workers everyday and keep Wisconsin’s labor legacy strong, now and forever.

Thank you.