On a soggy September day in 1891, Samuel Gompers, the longtime president of the American Federation of Labor, gave the keynote address at the first “official” Labor Day in Maine. In a rousing speech to workers and their families at Sebago Lake, Gompers argued that “wealth is a public trust, and the right to have something to say about wages and hours of labor pertains to the workers from whom the wealth comes.”

Gompers had some major flaws, but he was 100 percent correct on that point. Workers are the true wealth creators and they have a right to band together to demand their fair share of the fruits of their labor. When workers exercise that collective strength, incomes go up and conditions improve for everyone.

Unfortunately, anti-labor politicians, corporations and billionaires have waged a decades-long assault on workers’ rights, leaving the U.S. with some of the weakest worker protections in the industrialized world. As a result, corporate profits have soared while wages have stagnated, even as productivity has risen nearly 70 percent in the past 40 years.

But working people are banding together and taking action! Last year, nearly a half-million workers went out on strike – the highest number since 1986. After enduring years of poor wages and austerity, a tight labor market has emboldened teachers, nurses, hotel workers, grocery store employees, bus drivers and others to withhold their labor to demand better wages, working conditions and more public funding for crucial public services.

And they’re winning! Here in Maine we’ve witnessed this rise in collective action firsthand as Preble Street workers, Calais Regional Hospital techs, Baxter Academy teachers and Kennebec Valley Community Action Program drivers have all formed new unions this year. All of this activity is occurring as a recent poll shows support for unions at a near-50-year high, with enthusiasm particularly strong among young people.

However, without pro-labor leaders in office, the laws are often stacked against us. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy paved the way for the rapid growth of unions in the 1930s by refusing to send in troops to break the Flint, Michigan, sit-down strike at General Motors in 1937. Then President Ronald Reagan reversed decades of labor policy by declaring an all-out war on unions with his firing and permanent replacement of striking air traffic controllers 44 years later.

While we’ve heard many promises since then, Congress has not passed one significant piece of pro-union legislation in decades. This time, no candidate should take our support for granted. Fortunately, we are seeing some serious plans emerge.

One proposal, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, would strengthen workers’ rights by prohibiting companies from interfering in union elections and banning so-called “right to work” laws, which are designed to weaken unions, drive down wages and allow workers to get the benefits of unions without paying dues. Another, more-ambitious measure would allow unions to negotiate minimum standards for entire industries rather than bargaining with only one company at a time. Sector-wide bargaining has been phenomenally successful in raising living standards for workers in Europe.

As the health care crisis continues to worsen, we are also urging candidates to support a “Medicare for All” system so we can finally take health care off the bargaining table and focus on raising wages and improving working conditions. And finally, it is urgent that Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform to give the millions of undocumented workers a legal path to citizenship. This is not only the humane thing to do, but it will end a two-tiered labor system that encourages the exploitation of workers and drives down wages for everyone.

Regardless of what politicians do in Washington, we will continue to organize and build power in our movement. If we’ve learned anything from the history of workers’ struggles, it’s that they can pass anti-worker laws, they can rig the justice system against us, they can hire armies of anti-union consultants and they can even send out the National Guard, but they can never destroy the desire of working people to band together to protect their common interests.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.