For my family (and probably your own), Labor Day is a civil rights holiday – especially for those of us who are Americans of Color.
When my kids were young, they would ask me about Labor Day. I would tell them about A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters and their role in bringing about the integration of the U.S. military and the movement for civil rights.
On Labor Day, I also reminded my children that, before their grandparents had a union to stand by them, they were forced to work from sun up to sun down for 15 cents an hour.
In the early 1950s, my parents moved to Baltimore to make a better life for their family. In South Baltimore, my father worked as a unionized laborer at Davison Chemical Company.
Dad’s union card helped us to change our lives for the better.
The union provided our family with the health care plan that kept us healthy and strong. Dad’s union contract helped my parents buy our home (the same home in which my mother lives to this very day). We children were able to study at better schools – the foundation for all that we have become in life.
For my family, and tens of millions of Americans like us, unions were the driving force that transformed our lives.
This is why we understand that the unrelenting attacks upon America’s unions are also attacks directed at us.
The American strategy for success has always been a simple one: work hard, and achieve a better life. For far too many Americans today, however, this opportunity appears to be receding out of reach.
As my friend and colleague, Rep. George Miller [CA-07], former chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, once declared, “. . . the middle class has been squeezed.”
“Corporate profits and executive compensation have skyrocketed,” he has observed to me, time and time again, “but the middle class has seen their wages stagnate, while the costs for basic needs like healthcare, education, food, energy and housing continue to increase.”
This reality has become even more evident during recent years.
Most experts would agree with Rep. Miller that “globalization and misguided government policies” have led to widespread economic insecurity. However, his use of the term, “misguided,” may have been overly diplomatic.
A strong case can be made that the “squeezing” of the middle class Americans of whom he speaks has been intentional.
Corporate America and its political allies have been on the attack in recent years – demanding more work for less pay while raising prices to whatever the market will bear. This squeeze progressed for nearly a decade with the active assistance of the Bush Administration and its congressional allies.
In an economy driven by consumer spending, that squeezing of the American family is what led, eventually, to a credit balloon that burst and the devastating recession from which we still are recovering.
Neither American unions nor the working families the unions represent were the cause of that economic recession. Rather, America’s workers were the victims of a conscious set of policies that virtually guaranteed serious economic trouble.
On Labor Day, we also should remember our history and recall the long, hard struggles through which working families have made progress in this country. The ability of working people to organize through labor unions has always been important because our nation’s unions have set the standard for how all of us must be treated on our jobs.
Working people gained a vote at our workplace through the collective bargaining that complemented and reinforced our political voice at the ballot box. New Deal reformers called this balance of labor power and influence “industrial democracy.”
This is why, in recent years, “industrial democracy” has been under a sustained attack by corporate interests and their political allies – attacks that continue to this day in both the Congress and the courts.
It is important for us to keep this historical context in mind because, today, our civil rights, as well as our opportunities for economic advancement, are at stake.
The Civil Rights Movement of our own time is not limited to issues of race or gender or freedom of association – although recent events have demonstrated that these civil rights challenges must still be confronted and overcome.
However, the Civil Rights Movement of this century must also address whether working parents can afford to feed and house their children – and provide their children with the health care, education and opportunity that they deserve.
In broader terms, the Civil Rights Movement of our time is about whether America, once again, can become a nation of opportunity for all – or whether hard working Americans will continue to be squeezed past the breaking point.
We all are the sons and daughters of Labor. It is a fundamental truth that should guide us on Labor Day and every day of our lives.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.
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