Half of the telegraph and electrical linemen in this country died on the job. In 1883, a group of them, members of the Knights of Labor, went on strike protesting low pay and unsafe working conditions. Their strike was broken. Still unsung, still suffering an appalling percentage of tradesmen electrocuted on the job, it took eight more years for a small contingent of courageous leaders to form a national union of electrical workers, the precursor of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
One hundred and thirty years later, all across the country, unsung workers in the fast food and retail industry are walking off the job in major cities protesting low pay and benefits.
They don't face the appalling safety conditions that linemen did. But these mostly-young workers face the same ruthless resistance to decent wages and benefits from powerful and profitable companies, underscoring the growing chasm between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of society.
Striking workers include Chris Thomas, a Nike store employee in Chicago who told The Huffington Post how he only made $10 an hour after working for Nike for years. He got a raise to $11, but then the store closed for renovations. When he came back to work, his pay was dropped back to $10 an hour.
"They say we're low-skilled workers, but we're helping generate billions of dollars in profits," says Thomas.
The Pew Research Center says that the top 7 percent of Americans saw their average net worth skyrocket by 28 percent between 2009 and 2011. The remaining 93 percent of the population saw their paychecks erode. The wealthiest 400 individuals in America have more cash and assets than half of all the families in the entire country put together.
Even billionaires Warren Buffett and Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, say the lopsided distribution of wealth in the U.S. has reduced the purchasing power of average workers to a point that it endangers our economic future.
In New Jersey, several IBEW locals have joined with 200 other groups in a petition campaign in support of a referendum on this coming November's ballot to increase the state's minimum wage to $8.25 with a cost-of-living adjustment. Hundreds of new voters are being registered under the slogan: "Register to Vote Yourself a Raise." Other states are seeing similar efforts.
Workers who fill orders for expensive electronic equipment at Amazon.com have sued the company to be paid overtime for unpaid hours waiting in line to be checked by security personnel at the end of their shifts.
In June, a caravan of workers and advocates will travel to Wal-Mart's annual stockholder's meeting in Bentonville, Ark. They will call for limits on executive pay while spreading awareness about the company's arrogant refusal to recognize the rights of their employees to speak out and organize.
Some say members of a union of skilled workers like the IBEW don't have much in common with the strikers at restaurant chains, who began their protests on April 4, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis 45 years ago. They say we've got no skin in the struggle against wealth inequality.
But we have everything to gain by supporting men and women who are putting a human face on the statistics about growing inequality in America. We all lose because the polarization of wealth threatens our economy and our democracy.
Nothing makes the case better than the narratives and the spirit of men and women who, like our own members, exhibit the courage to speak up and demand justice on the job.
These people aren't strangers. They are our neighbors, our kids, our brothers and sisters. This is our future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that at the current rate, by 2020, nearly three-fourths of all job openings in the U.S. will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30 percent paying a median of about $20,000 a year.
In November, hundreds of IBEW members will join other unions, individuals and organizations to participate in grassroots campaigns for candidates who pledge to stand up against growing wealth inequality and support real steps to reduce unemployment by rebuilding our nation's infrastructure.
Sometimes our campaigns will help to win elections. Inevitably, some of our candidates will lose.
When they do, it can make us feel like all of our talk is cheap or our voices are echoes in the desert.
The low-wage worker strikes, campaigns like the one in New Jersey to raise the minimum wage, and the lawsuits of the workers at Amazon, show that we are part of a growing movement that reaches far beyond the men and women who belong to unions and even beyond which political party we belong to.
If we truly want to level the playing field in our economy, if we want to preserve America's historic promise for the next generation, all Americans should take hope and inspiration from the newest fighters for economic justice and give them our support.