5 Women Labor Leaders Speak Their Minds on the Future of Labor

"A woman's rights affect everyone's rights. This is happening in sectors where people think it's not -- like manufacturing, where women might get only $11-12 an hour. Collaboration is important, and women need to come together. We also need men supporting this."
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We all love the last holiday of the summer. It's one last chance to celebrate the season, spend a little extra quality time with family and friends and soak up that last little bit of Vitamin D before we all go back to school or back to work.

But as much as we love Labor Day, how much do we really know about it?

Labor Day was created as a celebration of the Labor Movement, which earned so much for working-class America. From workers' rights to free time -- (hello, weekends!) -- and the 9-to-5 work day, the Labor Movement changed much of the working environments that we know today. But these changes didn't come without hard work and persistence.

In honor of Labor Day, I decided to talk to an impressive group of women labor leaders -- Liz Shuler, Secretary- Treasurer of the AFL-CIO; Cindy Estrada, Vice President of United Automobile Workers; Karen Nussbaum, Executive Director of Working America; and Rachel Bryan, the Community Liaison at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595 -- to discuss what Labor Day means to them and where they see our future as a movement.

"Why is Labor Day still important?"

Liz Shuler: America's working people make our country run. This year workers across the country are standing together and fighting to create a fair economy that protects their right to a better life. Hard work deserves notice and Labor Day is the only holiday where we recognize working people and the dignity of work as something that unites all of us.

Cindy Estrada: We need to take away that myth that labor was needed during the "bad old days" and not needed today. Labor is still vital today. It's important to have time off to take care of your family and to have safety in the workplace -- all those same issues that my grandmother had.

Karen Nussbaum: There's a strong echo from Labor Day in the 1880s: disruptive changes in the workforce; robber barons then, the billionaire class now. Why is it still important?

Rachel Bryan: It is a celebration of the accomplishments of the American Labor Movement. It commemorates the victories including safer conditions on the job, fair pay and the end of child labor. This day serves as a reminder that the protections and perks we enjoy today came at great cost. .

"Why is Labor Day important to you?"

Liz Shuler: It is the holiday each year where we truly have a moment to reflect on the important work that is done by men and women everyday, that is often invisible. If you think about all the work that goes into every aspect of your day -- whether it's the cashier at the bakery, the barista at the coffee shop; the bus driver who gets you to work on time; the security officer at the front desk who makes your building safe; or the power lineman delivering electricity to your home -- their work makes our work possible. Take the time to consciously say "thank you" to those people -- every day, but especially on Labor Day.

Cindy Estrada: I'm a product of the labor movement -- my father, uncle and grandmother, a single mother who was able to raise her family and provide because of her union status. I believe that we cannot have free society without the ability to bargain. With a CEO to worker pay ratio of 300:1--the world should have the ability to bargain.

"What is the most important thing in 2015 for worker rights for women?"

Liz Shuler: Raising wages and that doesn't just mean an increase in pay, it also means fair schedules so women know how many hours they will be working each week, earned sick and family leave so women don't have to worry about their job security while taking care of a loved one and expanding overtime protections so that every woman gets paid for the time she spends on the job. A recently released study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research revealed that millions of women workers stand to benefit from expanded overtime protections, especially single mothers and Black and Latina women.

Raising women's wages not only helps women and families, but helps our entire economy. There are a lot of campaigns happening right now focused on raising wages in industries that are dominated by women who are the majority of low wage workers. Campaigns like Fight for $15, OUR Walmart, homecare workers. Their fight to organize and countless others will help raise wages for working women and provide them with a better quality of life.

Cindy Estrada: A woman's rights affect everyone's rights. This is happening in sectors where people think it's not -- like manufacturing, where women might get only $11-12 an hour. Collaboration is important, and women need to come together. We also need men supporting this.

Karen Nussbaum: Collective power. Give a woman a right to have a say on the job and she'll have the power to bargain for a good job and an economy that finally realizes that there isn't a wife at home.

Rachel Bryan: Equal pay in ALL classifications, greater access to ALL occupations and ending institutional sexism are all important issues.

"Millennials will be 50 percent of the workforce by 2020, what should they be fighting for?"

Liz Shuler: Millennials could be the first generation in U.S. history to not do better than their parents. Millennials should fight for jobs with steady schedules and fair pay, and they should fight for the right to form a union in their workplace so they can bargain collectively with their employers about things like pay increases and benefits. Millennials have record amounts of student debt, which is making it increasingly difficult for them to reach certain milestones like homeownership, and even marriage, that previous generations did not struggle with.

Cindy Estrada: They should be fighting for a system that allows everyone to succeed. Policies are controlled by a handful of people with a lot of money, and showing that it's not ok to vilify a class of people is important.

Karen Nussbaum: Big corporations and big banks act with impunity -- they role over the rights of working people, shackle young people who go to college with lifelong debt and cut off communities of color from good jobs entirely -- and that's the only work environment young people know. Young working people need to band together, take the moral high ground and fight for their future in organizations they control through their dues and their vote.

Rachel Bryan: Social justice, the need to qualify people and not quantify people. Plus free education for all.

"What do you think of the sharing economy? How do you think it might impact the labor movement?"

Liz Shuler: The on demand or "gig" economy likes to market itself as an employee's dream: no set schedule, no boss. In reality, working in the gig economy means constantly being subjected to last minute-scheduling, no benefits since you are considered your own boss and no substantial share in all of the profits the companies bring in.

Karen Nussbaum: The gig economy is the latest version of something very old -- those with their own companies and capital finding new ways to expand profits by taking more out of working people. In 1974, "Business Week" ran an editorial in which they said, "It will be a bitter pill for most Americans to swallow -- the idea of doing with less so that banks and business can have more." Automation and globalization were the structural changes which were exploited to lower labor standards then -- it's the gig economy now The labor movement failed to adequately adapt to the changes then -- we better now.

Rachel Bryan: The Sharing Economy is a misnomer like Right-to-Work, which is the right to get paid less. Yes, it creates greater access to goods and service but at what cost?

This further creates a race to the bottom. Does the Uber driver have health insurance? Are they making a living wage? Folks who use their dwelling for Air BNB, what protections do they have against a temporary tenant who trashes their place?

Cheap labor and goods creates wealth for the tech companies and does little to nothing for their temporary, low-wage workers. This impacts the labor movement because we already do many of the jobs that the "sharing economy" is watering down. But, we do these jobs at a living wage and with integrity so that our families can live and thrive.

"Do you think that the labor movement and all of its principles are adequately represented and discussed in today's media and popular culture?"

Liz Shuler: There have been a lot of good references and portrayals of unions in pop culture recently. Highly watched shows like Orange is the New Black, which showcased the prison guards' efforts to form a union last season, Blackish and Jane the Virgin all touched on the labor movement and unions in their most recent seasons. Natalie Portman thanked union members during her 2011 Oscars speech, expressing her gratitude for the hard work they did that made the movie Black Swan such a success.

Journalists at Gawker and Salon have organized and are redefining what a union means for young people in the online media environment. Unions are featured in pop culture and in the media in rare instances -- and we could be doing more to lift up the positive impact unions have on working people's lives.

Karen Nussbaum: When the best movie out there on women's work is "Mad Max: Fury Road" I think it's safe to say popular culture could be doing a lot more.

It's clear that there's a lot to celebrate -- Labor Day is a chance for us to reflect on the Labor Movement and how far we've come. However, there are still many issues that need advocating from a worker's rights perspective -- minimum wage, women's rights and the continuing importance of unions.

As a society we must continue to discuss and fight for the rights of all of us when it comes to work, and when we deserve a break.

Leslie Tolf is the President of Union Plus.

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