Late on Friday afternoons, in workplaces across America, you can feel a change in the air. It’s palpable — a buzz of excitement and gratitude. After several days of tough, productive work, the weekend is almost here.
That simple freedom of two days off wasn’t granted by employers benevolently. It was hard-fought and earned by America’s labor movement. With the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act nearly eight decades ago, the 40-hour workweek became codified in federal law.
But here’s the thing. Right now, a lot of Americans aren’t experiencing that weekend freedom. Many have to work a second job or put in longer hours just to scrape by. If they do have a weekend off, they’re anxious about how they’re going to pay for their kids’ sneakers or school supplies, or how they’ll manage to save for college tuition or retirement. In the meantime, the incomes of CEOs and other high-earners are vaulting into the stratosphere.
This isn’t right, but it’s not by accident.
Big corporations and the wealthy — together with the politicians who do their bidding — have rigged our economy and political system against working people. This Labor Day, we are confronting this rigged system head-on.
All Americans deserve the same freedoms. Like the freedom to take off work — without fear that your pay will be docked, or you’ll lose your job altogether — when a loved one gets sick. Like the freedom to live in a safe community, with good schools and robust public services. Like the freedom to retire with dignity.
The American labor movement is fighting for these freedoms just as fiercely as we did for the 40-hour work week.
Labor unions level the playing field and provide balance to the economy. They allow working people to build power in numbers, to have a voice on the job and negotiate fair compensation. Without unions, the boss holds all the cards and workers are easily exploited. If you’re not at the table, you’re going to be on the menu.
Unions promote safe and healthy workplaces. Unionized workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, are more likely to have paid vacation and holidays. They have greater access to the security of a defined benefit pension that doesn’t fluctuate with the stock market. Unions also close the gender pay gap and empower African-American and Latino workers.
High union density correlates with economic fairness. In the middle of the 20th century, high union membership rates meant everyone benefitted from American growth and prosperity. But as union density has shrunk since the 1970s, more and more income has been concentrated in the upper brackets — in other words, the rich have gotten richer at the expense of everyone else.
You don’t have to be in a union to benefit from strong unions. Unions put upward pressure on wages and raise labor standards across the economy. Through collective bargaining, union members also advocate terms of employment that benefit the entire community. For example, nurses fight for staff-to-patient ratios that mean better health care; teachers fight for smaller class sizes, so our schools are stronger.
Here’s the bottom line: When American workers have the freedom to join together in strong unions, we’re all a little more free. It’s no wonder, according to a new Gallup poll, more than three in five Americans approve of unions, the highest mark in nearly 15 years.
So why are corporate special interests trying to take that freedom away? Because the rigged system works in their favor. If they can get away with holding down wages and offering skimpy benefits, that means more for them.
So, they will resort to the ugliest tactics to stymie unions. This summer in Mississippi, Nissan ran an orchestrated campaign of harassment and intimidation to coerce employees to vote against joining the United Auto Workers. And now, the Koch brothers and their allies are trying to persuade the Supreme Court to make the entire public sector so-called “right-to-work,” striking directly at the freedom to come together in unions.
Union workers know that freedom is won, not given; and it has to be protected. So if you’re able to exhale and take a break this Labor Day weekend, thank a union worker for that feeling of freedom. And know that we’ll keep fighting for it no matter what.