By Stephanie Bloomingdale, President, Wisconsin AFL-CIO
This Labor Day, as we enjoy the day off that has become a cherished American part of our late summer calendar, let’s take a moment to reflect on the history this holiday commemorates and role our resurgent labor movement is playing going forward. By the late 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution had transformed society in both positive and negative ways. Productivity had skyrocketed, but this material abundance came at a heavy price for the workers who made it possible. The average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks for wages that barely fed a family. Children as young as 5 or 6 worked dangerous jobs in mills, factories and mines. Workplaces for people of all ages were often unhealthy and unsafe.
To address these intolerable conditions, workers joined together in labor unions, acting collectively to improve the lives not only of union members, but of all working people. Things often taken for granted today represent hard-won victories achieved by union workers of an earlier generation. Wisconsin’s labor movement was instrumental in the passage of ground-breaking legislation that transformed the lives of working people, from a law in 1887 mandating safety improvements on factory machinery that had needlessly maimed so many people, to child labor laws, workers’ compensation and unemployment compensation.
Equally important, the freedom to stand together in unions gives us power to demand a fairer share of the wealth that our labor produces. Once regarded as little more than expendable cogs in the machinery of the industrial economy, union workers have rightfully claimed our role as essential partners in the creation and preservation of American prosperity. This history of worker empowerment and its role in building and sustaining America’s middle class is what we celebrate on Labor Day.
Today, as workers are leaving their jobs in record numbers in the so-called “Great Resignation”, it is an appropriate moment to look at the role unions are playing going forward. U.S. Census Bureau data show that the steady decline in the middle class’ overall share of income over the last fifty years closely parallels the decline in union membership. As the noted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few; but we can’t have both”. But now, a growing number of working Americans are seeking to reverse this trend by coming together to organize a union. A recent Gallup poll shows nearly three-quarters of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest level since 1965. Workers are organizing at a pace not seen in our country since the Great Depression.
That’s good news for everyone. Greater union density means higher wages for both union and nonunion workers. Unions support strong families with better benefits and job protections. Being in a union boosts civic participation. By actively communicating about issues and candidates, members equip ourselves to make informed choices on Election Day.
For millions of Americans, labor unions are the key to a better life. By empowering working people and preserving and reinvigorating our country’s middle class, unions provide a vital, living foundation for our democracy. That’s something worth celebrating this Labor Day.