After serving in the military overseas, my father returned home and worked in construction to support our family. But when an accident with a construction crane left him with a severely injured back, it took him a year and a half to recover—without workers’ compensation. As one of his nine children, I remember how badly he wanted to work, and I remember how much it hurt us all when he couldn’t.
Since then, my family has had its share of card-carrying union members—laborers, longshoreman, police, teachers, truckers and firefighters, some of whom are retired or deceased now. But I’m proud of our union history. I’m a card-carrying union member myself. And you better believe we celebrate Labor Day as more than a three-day weekend.
Like millions of other hardworking American families, we understand that the quality of life we enjoy today is the direct legacy of laborers who fought for it yesterday. For us, Labor Day is about carrying the torch of the men and women who sacrificed, organized and even bled and died fighting for the simple idea that workers have rights; that a hard day’s work should be rewarded with a fair day’s pay; and that an injury on the job shouldn’t sentence your family to a life of poverty.
Together, the American workers of the labor movement fought for the 40-hour workweek, pensions, workers’ compensation, safer workplaces and the end of child labor. They’ve reduced the gender pay gap. They’ve fought and won battles against discrimination in the workplace, and ended many of the unfair hiring and firing practices of our past—chipping away at racism, sexism and disability-based discrimination.
African-American labor leaders were at the center of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. After the hard-won victories of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights act in 1965, civil rights leaders continued to fight for better pay, working conditions and the right to unionize. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in Memphis, Tenn., in solidarity with black sanitation workers who had recently staged a walkout and gone on strike. As of last year, African Americans continue to have higher rates of union membership than white, Asian or Hispanic workers.
But this Labor Day, with a national election fast approaching, we have an opportunity to do more than celebrate the labor movement. If we want to keep growing the workforce, increasing wages and expanding the middle class, we need to organize politically and elect leaders up and down the ticket who stand with labor.
The choice couldn’t be more clear this year, especially when it comes to the presidency.
While Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine have embraced the work that unions do—fighting for investment in good-paying jobs, raising the minimum wage and restoring collective bargaining rights—many on the GOP side have chosen the opposite. Leading in this is the party’s standard-bearer, Donald Trump, who celebrates greed, hoards profits, shortchanges his contractors and pays his workers as little as possible. He said that American wages are “too high.” And just this past spring, the Trump Organization refused to negotiate contracts with service workers at one of his Las Vegas hotels.
Trump was sued for using undocumented and underpaid Polish workers to build his Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York City. He staffs his Mar-a-Lago resort almost exclusively with poorly documented foreign workers, ignoring unemployed Americans. And most recently, his Trump Model Management has been accused of consistently using models hired illegally, coaching the girls to lie to customs agents about why they were entering the country.
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, would be just as bad for workers. In Indiana, Pence repealed an 80-year-old law that protected wages for construction workers. He defends his state’s anti-union “right to work” law, and he’s staunchly opposed to raising the minimum wage.
Despite what the likes of Trump and Pence believe, unions have an important role to play within our society—a role that must be protected.
In recent years, Republican legislatures and governors across the country have succeeded in weakening unions. This year, West Virginia became the 26th state to pass a so-called right-to-work law. On average, workers in right-to-work states make almost $6,000 less annually than their counterparts in states without right-to-work. States that haven’t passed right-to-work laws have lower poverty and infant mortality rates, higher rates of health insurance coverage, lower workplace fatality rates and greater investments in education.
The American economy is the envy of the world. But we clearly have more work to do in order to make sure that economy doesn’t reward just those at the top. This Labor Day, let’s recommit ourselves to electing leaders who will stand with labor, fight for workers and fight to expand opportunity for all Americans. We are stronger together.
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