With unions under attack, this November we must elect candidates who support workers’ rights
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Unlike most federal holidays, Labor Day did not start with a presidential decree. It began instead in 1882, when a small group of workers met in downtown New York to parade in celebration of improved working conditions. So small was the initial crowd that organizers considered calling off the event, but slowly, the march grew. By the end of the day, between 10,000 and 20,000 people had turned out to make history with the nation’s first major Labor Day parade—a tradition that quickly morphed into the holiday we know today.

Labor Day’s humble origins speak to unions’ profound capacity to bring ordinary people together to effect change. For over a century and a half, labor groups have successfully demanded better, safer working conditions for everyday Americans. It’s to them that we owe things like workplace safety laws, the 40-hour work-week, the minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and even Social Security. In California, labor organizers like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta won rights for farmworkers like my parents, opening for them the doors to the American Dream. This is not to mention unions’ countless victories at the bargaining table; just this year, for instance, San Diego organizers managed to win wage hikes, health care benefits, and paid family leave for the city’s teachers. The effects are striking; in 2017, union employees on average earned 25 percent more per week ($1,041) than their non-union counterparts ($829) and received 56 percent more in retirement benefits. Studies also show unions to be important in combating income inequality. No wonder, then, why a full 62 percent of Americans would like to see unions grow stronger nationwide.


Far from growing, though, unions across the country are under attack. Since 2010, states have slashed collective bargaining rights and passed so-called “right-to-work” laws that gut unions’ abilities to collect the dues that sustain them financially. Meanwhile, the current administration has sought to undermine labor rights through conservative appointments to the NLRB and other federal agencies. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in the case Janus v. AFSCME, moreover, dealt a devastating blow to the millions of public sector workers around the country. As a result, at a time when corporate profits are at all-time highs, stagnant wages and shrinking labor protections have left working families struggling.

This November, Americans have a clear choice before them. The partisan divide on labor policy has never been more striking, and with control of Congress at stake, voters’ choices have the potential to profoundly impact workers’ rights for years to come. This Labor Day, I hope that we can reflect on how to use our position in this election to protect and advance workers’ rights. With so much on the line, labor organizers are going to need all the help they can get to elect candidates who support workers’ rights. I hope you’ll join me and them to defend the victories this day commemorates, and to ensure a better future for working families.

Vargas represents California's 51st District.