Labor Day is set aside to honor Americans who work. Too often, this holiday also turns into a day of nostalgia, a glance backward to the era in the last century when most working people in the United States felt confident that they could find jobs to support their families.
But a growing number of working people across all walks of life in our country are getting tired of Labor Days blurred with a sense of loss. We are not ready to concede that good jobs are relics of a bygone time. The story of how Americans joined together in unions to make jobs better is not a history to be mourned. It is a model to be studied to remind us how working people, no matter what our color or where we come from, can once again gain the power to change our lives for the better.
I am from Michigan. Growing up in my working class Irish Catholic community, everyone understood that life was made better because of unions. We knew that midwesterners built a strong middle class by organizing unions that gave them a voice and the power to transform dangerous and poorly paid factory jobs into middle class work.
But starting in the early 1970s, corporations halted that forward progress for many. Companies decided to pay their people less, while executives moved jobs to states and countries with weaker unions and lower wages. They made it harder for private sector workers to organize new unions, especially in the service and caregiving sectors.
Billionaires and the politicians they back then targeted public employees, demanding they also accept lower standards. Real wages have barely budged for the generation since then and insecure jobs are tearing families apart. Studies by the United Way and the Urban Institute show that millions of working parents struggle to pay for basic needs.
This kind of stress pulls apart communities. Many times, the same billionaires and politicians who are at the front of attacks on union members are also first to point the finger of blame for our problems at those who are not Christians, at black people, and at new immigrants. There are signs that ordinary Americans are losing patience with chief executives “richsplaining” to us that another round of corporate tax breaks will somehow lead to better days for the rest of us.
It is inspiring to see this start to happen, with McDonalds workers in large cities launching the fight for a $15 wage floor and pushing Washington, California, New York and other states to boost their minimum wages. In recent weeks, union janitors in Michigan negotiated a new collective agreement to lift their pay to $15, as did Disney World workers in Florida.
It is also happening in smaller towns. Teachers joined with parents in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and other places to say “no” to more cutbacks to their public schools. Polling shows growing support among working people for unions. That sentiment is proving true the most important kind of polls, which are our elections.
Last month, Missourians voted overwhelmingly to reject a law that sought to weaken unions in their state. Last week, Florida Democrats picked Andrew Gillum, who stood alongside fast food workers striking for $15 and union rights, as their nominee for governor. On the same day, Republican primary voters in Oklahoma chose to oust 15 of the 19 state legislators who tried to block a tax increase to fund a teacher pay raise.
Many of the corporations that dominate the economy today, such as fast food companies, airlines, hospital systems and online retail giants, have gamed the system. They hide behind subcontractors, temporary agencies, or franchisees to claim that they do not really have any obligations to the people who work to make them profitable.
But we can rewrite the rules. We can use our power as citizens to hold these corporations accountable. We can empower workers across entire industries or regions to form unions to negotiate for better standards and jobs that build inclusive prosperity. It will take bold thinking to accomplish this kind of change in the system. It will require politicians who are willing to say “no” to wealthy donors. It will be up to us as Americans to make sure our rising working class can join together across racial differences to raise wages and have a say about our common future.
Mary Kay Henry is president of Service Employees International Union, a labor organization with two million members across North America.