By Richard W. Bloomingdale
In 1893, Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, was asked ‘what does labor want?’
A century-and-a-quarter later, our union movement finds ourselves faced with that same question, as eyes across the country turn to see what union members have to say in certain upcoming elections.
But Labor Day is not about politicians. Labor Day is about what working people have achieved over decades and centuries of collective action. Labor Day is also a reminder of how far we have to go in the pursuit of economic justice.
Today, the American economy works for the wealthiest of the wealthy, while telling the rest of us that this system is our greatest ‘opportunity’ to succeed. The reality is this system is designed to impede the freedom of workers, decimate the social contract and undermine our solidarity with one another.
Divide and conquer.
Labor Day should be a call to action to all working people. Power has been stripped away from workers, the majority of Americans who fight in their own way every day to make a better life for themselves.
Unions are the balancing force in the economy. But, decades of corporate-funded special interest attacks on labor law have had dramatic impacts on union density and the ability of workers to organize and join unions. The Union movement has come together in support or the PRO Act, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, to fight back against this tilted economic system.
The PRO Act addresses labor law reform on three fronts: Enforcing and deterring violations of workers’ rights, strengthening the right to organize and negotiate for fair wages and benefits, and increasing transparency regarding labor rights. It’s time for workers’ rights to be respected under law.
Currently, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not authorize the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to assess monetary penalties on employers who have violated workers’ rights, nor is it required to intervene immediately when a worker is fired for trying to organize a union. Workers even lack the ability to seek justice in a court of law when employers violate their NLRA rights; their only avenue for remedy is the NLRB.
The PRO Act would ensure workers’ right to be heard in a court of law, require the NLRB to take immediate action when workers are fired for organizing, and prohibit employers for holding captive audience meetings, where workers are required to attend meetings designed to bully and sway workers from joining a union.
In some sectors of our economy jobs are being created, good-paying ones even, in advanced manufacturing, energy construction, tech etc. But public education and workforce development have been neglected and deprived of investment and innovation for too long. We need a strong pipeline of trained, highly-skilled workers to keep up with the present economy, not to mention the jobs of tomorrow. It’s not enough to talk about jobs if we aren’t educating and preparing people for those jobs.
This Summer, the United Way of Pennsylvania introduced our Commonwealth to ALICE.
ALICE stands for asset-limited, income-constrained, employee. In other words, people working full-time who struggle to make ends meet on a survival budget and are one significant, unexpected expense away from financial ruin. ALICE are working families struggling to afford necessities and pay their bills. Moreover, ALICE is above the federal poverty line.
ALICE lives in every one of our 67 counties. We see ALIICE every day of the week. ALICE takes care of our children at daycare. ALICE prepares and serves our food. ALICE is 24% of Pennsylvanians; too many of us have been, or are, ALICE. Thirty-seven percent of Pennsylvanians, more than 1.8 million people, are either below the poverty line or ALICE.
This demonstrates a fact that we already know and feel in our communities; wages are not keeping up with the cost of living, even while unemployment is at record lows.
We haven’t made it easy for workers and those about to enter the workforce. Student debt in Pennsylvania is the worst in the country. And even though history tells us that low unemployment should raise wages for all workers, that simply is not the case.
Labor Day is a reminder of the power of collective action. For centuries this country’s workers have fought for better conditions on the job, the respect for civil rights and a more just society. We have incredible power when we come together, in our workplaces and our communities. Nothing will change if things are allowed to stay the same.
While the fundamental goal of the union movement has not changed in the years since Gompers answer, neither has the source and method of that pursuit. “The emancipation of the working classes has to be achieved by the workers themselves.”
Richard W. Bloomingdale is president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. He writes from Harrisburg.