Rep. Elijah Cummings

As America celebrated Labor Day this week, we were doing more than enjoying a day off from work with our families.  We were acknowledging the essential — and continuing — contributions of working families and labor unions to America’s commitment to equality and opportunity for all.

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 foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

As the 1963 March on Washington that Mr. Randolph helped to organize expressly declared, the goals of the civil rights movement have always been about jobs as well as freedom.

That same struggle continues today, as we continue the fight for jobs that pay a living wage and offer health care and pension benefits — and in this continuing movement, union members remain among our most dedicated foot soldiers.

Consider these facts.

Compared to their non-union counterparts today, union workers’ wages are 27 percent higher.  For African American working families, that union difference translates, on average, to an additional $199 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.

From the experience of my own life, I can attest personally to the importance of this ability to organize and bargain collectively for fair wages and benefits.

My parents grew up as share croppers in Manning, South Carolina.  In the early 1950s, they moved to Baltimore, where Dad’s union membership at Davison Chemical helped us to change our lives for the better.

His wages went up from less than a dollar a day in South Carolina to a dollar per hour, plus overtime pay.  The union provided our family with the health care plan that kept us healthy and strong.

That same union membership helped my parents buy our home — and because of that home in a different neighborhood, I was able to study at better schools.

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.

I recall this for you because today, as in our past, the movements of everyday people for civil rights and workers’ rights march together, arm-in-arm.

We should consider this truth at this moment in our history when Americans are again taking to our streets in protest.  During this week of Labor Day we should not lose sight of the reality that these protests are as much about jobs that will support our families as they are about law enforcement and criminal justice.

For all of us, this connection between justice and opportunity is the vision for our nation that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and I have been advancing through our Middle Class Prosperity Project.

In our ongoing series of congressional investigations and public forums, we are revealing the realities behind income inequality in America — and the actions that we must undertake to address those failings.  Here is why we have embarked on this effort.

On Labor Day each year, we celebrate an American strategy for success that is engrained in our culture:  work hard, and achieve a better life.  Yet, for far too many working families of every racial background today, opportunity is relentlessly being pushed out of reach.

As Senator Warren observed during our first Washington Forum on Economic Challenges Facing the Middle Class:

“From 1935 to 1980, 90 percent of America’s families . . . got 70 percent of all the income growth in those 45 years.  It was a formula that worked: As our country got richer, our families got richer.”

“Then, starting in the 1980s,” she continued, “something changed. Productivity and GDP just kept going up, but workers were left behind.  In the 32 years from 1980 until 2012, 90 percent of Americans got zero income growth — nothing.”

This truth is why we are working to part the veil that seeks to hide why so many hard-working families continue to struggle.  Beginning with the Reagan Administration, deliberate choices in Washington have been a major driving force behind the inequities that we are witnessing today.

A central front in that ongoing struggle has been a relentless assault on the ability of working people to unionize for fair pay, decent benefits and greater respect.

Those attacks have taken many forms — from retaliation against union organizers to calling workers independent contractors in order to limit their rights — but they all have had the same purpose and effect: to prevent working people from organizing to achieve better lives.

This is why the economically powerful and their allies on Capitol Hill have devoted so much energy and vitriol to attacking President Obama’s appointments to the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board.

For those of us who are committed to protecting our civil rights, it also is why every day should be Labor Day.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.