Labor Day celebrates the labor movement and the struggle for workers’ rights. There is much to celebrate but the work is not done. The struggle for economic fairness that brought about Labor Day in 1894 still exists today, and in many places the progress of the last century is being rolled back.
Labor Day began at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when many Americans worked brutally long hours, seven days a week to provide for themselves and their families. Back then, tensions between the wealthy and workers were boiling hot. Working conditions were terrible and often deadly. Child labor was still prevalent. But by the 1880s, more and more workers were choosing to fight back against the inhumane conditions they had become accustomed to and used the power of collective organizing to begin fighting for their basic rights.
Thanks to generations of union organizers who risked their lives to create strong unions, we now have: the 40-hour workweek; minimum wage laws; overtime pay; health care, paid time off and pensions in many jobs; the weekend; child labor laws; and collective bargaining rights. All of these battles led to higher wages, greater benefits and increased opportunity, helping millions of people join the middle class and live a decent life with a secure retirement.
We know there are more battles to win. That same determination to improve people’s lives helped power last year’s successful ballot initiatives raise the minimum wage in six states. And as of this weekend, they have put $2 billion into the pockets of workers. That’s real money making a real difference in people’s lives.
But despite all the progress we’ve made, we know things have been heading in the wrong direction for working people for years. Economic inequality between the 1% and the other 99% is getting worse. Our political system is becoming even more rigged against workers who know their voices don’t matter nearly as much as the billionaires and corporate titans on Wall Street and in Washington actively working to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us. Just this past week we saw raises ripped away from workers in St Louis, MO by the state legislature and Gov. Eric Greitins.
Today, we of course need strong, vibrant labor unions, but we also need multiple other strategies to fight for everyday Americans. That’s why the Fairness Project works to support ballot measures in states that give voters the power to choose whether they want higher wages, paid leave, health care and other policies that can help level the playing field. Like unions, ballot initiatives give workers the ability to speak truth to power when power fails, unions to management and ballots to government.
By giving voters the direct ability to create their own solutions, we can make good on the bedrock promise of our government, that it be “of,” “by” and, most importantly, “for” the people.