The Labor Day weekend is upon us. As we pause on Monday to remember how much work we have done over the past year, we are reminded that forces other than our own dedication and commitment to getting the job done impact our abilities to earn the pay, benefits, and respect we deserve. As the economy on Main Street continues its return to pre-2008 levels, we are reminded that those modern-day robber barons on Wall Street took very much and suffered not at all.
Non-union workers today earn less than they did in 1963 when you account for inflation. When Dr. King stood on the steps to talk about a dream, it was a dream for workers’ rights, too. He led the charge, along with A. Philip Randolph of the AFL-CIO and Walter Reuther of the UAW, to raise the minimum wage to $2 an hour. In today’s dollars that would be well above $15 an hour
So it’s more than a bit ironic that on Aug. 29, 2013, hundreds of people, community activists, and legislative leaders stood with striking fast food workers in Hartford to embrace their demand for $15 per hour and the right to improve their lives by unionizing.
In 1963 the Dow Industrial sat at 700; today over 15,000, yet many still are trying to attain what they marched for in 1963. What went drastically wrong? Three things: greed, greed, and more greed. Today CEOs make 354 times what their average worker makes. In real dollars, that means the CEOs of S&P 500 Index companies earned $12.3 million last year, while the average rank-and-file worker earned $34,645.
Samuel Gompers, founding father of the American Federation of Labor, said it well when he observed, “The man who has millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants 10 cents more a day.”
Middle class America is under attack, and the only line of defense remaining is a strong and vibrant labor movement. It’s time to remember what labor unions have done for us. From the weekend to sick leave, child labor laws and safer working conditions, unions will always stand up for the rights of working people. Is it any wonder corporations and plutocrats like the Koch Brothers are spending billions to destroy the labor movement?
Union workers have rights no other worker has. They have the right to negotiate fair wages, workplace rules, health and safety, and other benefits. When workers are able to demand a decent standard of living, it not only helps them, but it also helps the community. Unlike corporate CEOs, middle class Americans spend their money, and the more money they make the more money will end up in the community instead of in offshore accounts or villas in Europe.
Our elected leaders are concerned with the economy and budgets, and rightfully so. Yet many of them miss that very simple link between a strong economy and a strong labor movement. Our capitalist system is consumer driven: bottom up, not trickle down. The more consumers spend, the faster the wheels turn the economic engine. When workers feel secure, and have disposable income, the closer we come to a truly virtuous economy where Main Street can thrive once again.
Working men and women still keep this country going. Whether they serve soup and sandwiches, or serve in the military, or work to protect our streets, they are the catalyst for a strong economy. So next time you think workers should take less, I’ll argue workers should earn more, because the more they earn the faster and fairer the economy grows. That makes everyone happy. (Well, maybe not the Wall Street speculators and gangster CEOs.)
So on this Labor Day thank some workers, because they are truly the engine that keeps our country running. And remember, too, that labor unions remain the single best anti-poverty, pro-middle class tool for working people.
Happy Labor Day.
Lori Pelletier is Secretary-Treasurer of the CT AFL-CIO.