Labor Day was established in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, as a concession to the labor movement days after he used federal troops to crush a strike by railroad workers which resulted in 30 deaths and some $80 million in property damages. Workers then, and workers now, were fighting for decent wages and working conditions and the end of human exploitation.
Today, at a time of massive income and wealth inequality and an outrageous level of corporate greed, we must never forget the struggles and ideals of those who came before us. We must continue the fight for a government and an economy that works for all, and not just the wealthy and powerful.
Labor Day is a time to remember that for hundreds of years the trade union movement in our country has led the fight for equal rights and economic and social justice. And it is a day to pledge our continuing support to protect workers’ rights which have been under fire for decades.
The reality is that over the past 40 years, the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country have rigged the economy against the American middle class, the working class and the most vulnerable people. The result is that the very rich are getting richer while most working families are struggling.
In America today, the typical male working full-time is making about $2,100 less than he did 43 years ago, while millions of women are working two or three jobs just to cobble together enough income to pay the bills. Back in 1979, nearly 4 out of 10 private sector workers had a defined benefit pension plan that guaranteed a secure retirement after a lifetime of hard work. Today, only 13 percent do.
In 1980, CEOs made 30 times more than the average worker. Today, chief executives of the largest corporations in America make about 347 times as much as their typical employees.
Meanwhile, the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country have never had it so good. The top 0.1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Fifty-two percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent. One family, the Walton family of Walmart — the worst union-busters of all — owns more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans.
As a result, people all over this country are asking the hard questions that need to be asked:
Why is it that, despite all of the incredible gains we have made in technology and productivity, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages?
Why is it that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major industrialized country while we have seen a 10-fold increase in the number of billionaires since the year 2000?
How does it happen that many of the new jobs being created today in America are part-time, low wage jobs?
Why is it that since 2001, over 60,000 factories have shut down in America and millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared? Why are the new manufacturing jobs being created in this country pay in some cases half of what manufacturing jobs used to pay?
Why are we in a race to the bottom with low wage countries like China, Mexico and Vietnam?
Why are we the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care for all or to provide paid family and medical leave?
Why have we lost our position as the best educated country in the world and now find millions of people paying off outrageously high student debts?
Why is our infrastructure — roads, bridges, airports, levees, dams, water systems and wastewater plants, mass transit, schools and housing — crumbling and in need of major repair?
The bottom line is that there are a number of reasons as to why the middle class in this country continues to shrink, while those on top are doing phenomenally well. The most important being that we increasingly have governments, at the national, state and local levels, that are beholden to wealthy campaign contributors rather than the needs of their constituents.
Our job is to bring our people together around a progressive agenda that works for all, and not just the few. Our job is to create an economy based on human needs, not the greed of the billionaire class.
We must rebuild the American labor movement and make it easier, not harder, for workers to join unions. Forty years ago, more than a quarter of all workers belonged to a union. Today, that number has gone down to just 11 percent and in the private sector it is now less than 7 percent as Republican governors across the country have signed anti-union legislation into law, drastically cutting labor membership in this country.
It is not a coincidence that the decline of the American middle class virtually mirrors the rapid decline in union membership. As workers lose their seat at the negotiating table, the share of national income going to middle class workers has gone down, while the percentage of income going to the very wealthy has gone up.
The benefits of joining a union are clear. Union workers earn 27 percent more, on average, than non-union workers. Over 76 percent of union workers have guaranteed defined benefit pension plans, while only 16 percent of non-union workers do. More than 82 percent of workers in unions have paid sick leave, compared to just 62 percent of non-union workers.
In order to revitalize American democracy we must overturn Citizens United, move to public funding of elections and end voter suppression.
We must demand that the wealthy and large corporations begin paying their fair share of taxes.
We must break-up the large Wall Street financial banks and make sure that no institution in America is too big to fail.
We must raise the minimum wage to a living wage, $15 an hour, and end the unconscionable and inequitable pay gap that currently exists between male and female workers.
We must re-write our disastrous trade policies and make sure that trade agreements benefit workers and not just CEOs of large corporations.
We must rebuild our crumbling infrastructure with a $1 trillion dollar investment and create up to 15 million good-paying jobs.
We must pass a Medicare-for-all, single-payer health care system and guarantee health care as a right, not a privilege.
We must make public colleges and universities tuition free for working families so that everyone can get a higher education regardless of income.
Today, on Labor Day, we must recommit ourselves to bringing all working people together in the fight for a just and humane world.
Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. Elected Mayor of Burlington, Vt., by 10 votes in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 election as Vermont’s at-large member in Congress, Sanders lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Read more at his website. Follow him on Twitter: @SenSanders or @BernieSanders