Each year, as our nation celebrates Labor Day, I spend a few moments recalling my own family’s journey from the fields of South Carolina to Baltimore and our nation’s middle class.
In these reflections, I give most of the credit to the vision and hard work of my parents – but I also acknowledge my own personal debt to the men and women who organize America’s workers into unions of labor and give all of us a better chance in life.
This sense of gratitude is why, when my children were young, I taught them about Asa Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — and how organized labor was an essential force in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Because Randolph had convinced President Roosevelt to integrate our nation’s defense industries, my father was able to gain a job (and a union card) at Davison Chemical when he brought my mother to Baltimore in the mid-1940s.
Dad’s wages went up from less than a dollar a day in the fields of South Carolina to a dollar per hour, plus overtime pay – and his union provided our family with the health care plan that kept us healthy and strong and helped my parents buy our home.
In years past, I also recalled for my children that, when I was only 12 years old, Mr. Randolph, Dr. King, and a broad alliance of other civil rights, labor and faith leaders organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
They were acutely aware that economic rights and civil rights are inextricably connected – and so was my family.
Dad’s union and his own hard work were the driving forces that transformed our lives — as they have for tens of millions of other American families – and I remain convinced that they can do so again today.
Today, at another moment in our nation’s history when Americans are taking to our streets in protest, we must never forget the inter-connection between workers’ rights and our civil rights.
I would be the last person to discount the injustice of the racial disparities that continue to afflict our society, and I will struggle for racial justice in America until the end of my days. Yet, more than half a century after Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech, the struggle of working families for jobs and freedom continues for millions of our countrymen and women of every racial background.
In this continuing struggle for better jobs that pay a living wage and offer health care and pension benefits, union members remain among our most dedicated foot soldiers – and their economic contributions to the lives of Americans of Color is clear.
Compared to their non-union counterparts today, union workers’ wages are 27 percent higher. For African American working families, this union difference translates into an additional $200 each week.
Union members are 60 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions, 50 percent more likely to enjoy employer-sponsored health insurance benefits, and 33 percent more likely to have paid sick leave. More often than not, moreover, union jobs set the standards for entire industries, benefitting everyone.
In light of all of these benefits to our society, it is not difficult to understand why public approval of labor unions (at 61 percent) reached its highest level in 14 years on Labor Day 2017. Paradoxically, however, this public support comes at a time when labor unions, and the American workers they represent, are under relentless attack by large corporations and their political allies.
As researchers at the respected Economic Policy Institute outlined in April of this year, President Trump and his Republican congressional allies are doing all that they can to undercut the wages and workplace protections of working families, including many of the same Americans who voted for them in 2016.
Confronted by this reactionary onslaught, Americans of every racial background would be well advised to understand that strong support for workers’ rights benefits us all, as well as our country.
This is why, when I was privileged to chair the Democratic Party’s 2016 Platform Drafting Committee, we made our party’s commitment to “raising incomes and restoring economic security for the middle class” our first priority.
In the Congress this year, we have reaffirmed those commitments in our “Better Deal” for the American people agenda.
On the jobs front, we are fighting for legislation that will create millions of well-paying, full-time jobs that pay a living wage through directly investing in our crumbling national infrastructure.
We also are determined to expand federal funding for the education and training that will empower American workers to succeed in our 21st Century economy – even as we also support the small businesses that create most of our new jobs, crack down on unfair foreign trade, and fight back against corporations that outsource American jobs.
The American people want to work. They deserve to be treated fairly for their contributions to our society.
In the better America that we Democrats envision, every day will be Labor Day.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.