Submitted to the AFRO by Elijah Cummings
For families `like my own, Labor Day each year is a civil rights holiday. From our own life experience, we understand that attacks on our nation’s labor unions are attacks upon both our civil rights and our pocketbooks.
When my children were young, I would tell them about A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the union’s role in integrating the U.S. military and the broader movement for our civil rights.
I remind them about organized labor’s critical role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the seminal moment in our history when Dr. King declared his dream for America.
My children learned 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 – and how, after my father gained a unionized job at Davison Chemical Company in Baltimore, he was able to earn 7 times that paltry wage plus overtime.
My father’s union was the driving force that allowed us to transform our lives for the better. His union membership provided our family with a health care plan and helped my parents buy our family home.
As a result, Robert and Ruth Cummings’ children and grandchildren were able to study at better schools and gain the excellent foundation for all that we would become in life.
Like so many other American families (of every racial background, I should add), we are the sons and daughters of labor – and we will never forget that our civil rights, our economic opportunity, and the strength of organized labor in America are inextricably intertwined.
Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology confirms that at least one-half of America’s non-union workers would vote for a union today if given the chance. At least 262,000 American workers made that choice in 2017.
They could see with their own eyes that unionized working families are more likely to earn higher wages (a third higher for African Americans) and that union members are far more likely to have affordable health coverage from their jobs, retirement benefits, and paid sick days.
Our unions have set the standard, and all working families, union and non-union alike, have gained.
For many of these new union members, and especially those who are Americans of Color, they also are becoming acutely aware of the connection, both historically and today, between our economic empowerment and our civil rights.
Working Americans gained a vote in our workplaces through legally-protected collective bargaining that complemented and reinforced our political voices at the ballot box. Even as our nation’s unions stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us in our fight for voting rights, non-discrimination and other civil rights, it was largely through our labor unions that we gained a fuller measure of the economic American Dream.
President Franklin Roosevelt and other New Deal reformers called this balance of labor power and political influence “industrial democracy.” Tens of millions of American families, including my own, were empowered as a result.
More recently, however, this “industrial democracy” has been under sustained attack by corporate interests and their political allies – attacks that emanate today from the White House, the Republicans in Congress and even from some of our courts.
In 2016, President Trump campaigned on a pledge to stand up for American workers, but his actions since taking office have painted that promise in appalling hypocrisy. In a sustained effort to undo President Obama’s pro-labor legacy, and with the active support of his Republican congressional allies, President Trump has appointed judges and members of the Federal Labor Relations Board who have a record of antipathy toward workers’ rights.
This President has issued Executive Orders that weaken federal unions, and earlier this month, as the rest of our nation celebrated Labor Day, he perversely “honored” America’s working families by announcing that he would deny federal workers their modest and previously scheduled 2.1 percent annual pay raise.
His (questionable) reasoning: “We must maintain efforts to put our nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases.”
Federal workers, including more than 260,000 Marylanders, must be shaking their heads at the bitter irony jumping out from underneath the President’s words. At least 83 percent of the Republicans’ recent $1.5 Trillion tax give-away will go to the most affluent 1 percent among us – and not to working families.
We Democrats in the Congress intend to fight this attack by the Trump Administration against the men and women in government who serve and protect us all. Still, we must also redouble our efforts to move forward with the broader civil rights struggle of our time.
The civil rights movement of this century must continue to stand for voting rights and against invidious discrimination – but we also must continue the fight on behalf of our nation’s working families and the labor unions that defend them.
We are fighting to build an America that, once again, will work for working families. There is no challenge of more lasting consequence to our decisions as voters on Election Day this year.
In the days and years ahead, as in our past, every day in America should be Labor Day. This is a fundamental political and economic reality of our time.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.
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