A strange thing about America is that we take one day off a year to honor the labor movement, and then spend the next 364 beating it into the ground.

In recent years the holiday has become an occasion to roll out the grim statistics:

Once a third of American workers were union members, but that has dropped to 10 percent in the public sector and only 6 percent in the private sector.

The decline of unions has coincided with decades of stagnant wages. It’s also linked to growing income inequality and a welfare state that lags behind all of our industrialized peers, where strong unions are an uncontroversial fact of life.

This is a real concern. Oil companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers know how to make sure that their voices are heard in the halls of government at every level.

But labor unions are the only powerful organizations that consistently represent the economic interests of people who earn low to moderate incomes. The most generous and progressive corporations in the country will never serve the interests of working people as well as working people who can speak for themselves if they have the platform.

But this year there is some good news for the labor movement, that suggests that there could be better days ahead for the working class. A new Gallup poll shows that unions are viewed more favorably by the public as a whole than any time in 50 years. The positive impression cuts across gender, age and education lines, with only Republicans on the fence.

And most encouraging, the most robust support comes from the youngest cohort – the millennials, born between 1981 and 1996 – who entered the workforce during the financial crisis and its aftermath, and understand the precarious position of an American worker.

Leadership from this age group has led to the spread of union contracts at high-profile internet media companies like Deadspin and Vox.

They have also been signed with nonprofit social service agencies that help people in need, but have not always been as supportive of their own workers.

Labor issues are at the forefront of the Democratic presidential primary, with several candidates putting forward their plans to help, none more than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sanders’ boldest idea is to introduce a system of bargaining that exists in Europe, where whole industrial sectors negotiate pay rates at the same time, rather than on a company-by-company basis, preventing companies from moving work around to chase the lowest labor costs.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren supports a plan that would allow workers to elect representatives on corporate boards.

American workers deserve more than a day off at the end of summer. Harnessing the energy of young union activists to move these and other ideas forward is what this country will have to do to really celebrate Labor Days to come.

 


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