LABOR DAY: The Spirit of Union in Difficult Times

Filed under: Featured News,Labor,Opinion |


President of the Philadelphia Council, AFL-CIO

The labor movement is used to having to do things the hard way.

Working people in the United States of America, and around the world, in fact, have never been handed anything on a silver platter. During the Gilded Age boom of American industry, American workers worked long hours, in dangerous conditions, with no legal job protections, unemployment insurance, disability pay, health insurance, or pensions. Working people quickly realized that the only way to win the basic improvements they needed to their wages, their hours, their working conditions, was to organize. To stand together.

And before that Gilded Age, millions of American workers of African heritage were still held in chattel slavery, legally defined in many American states as property. Generations of African American workers were born, lived, and died in bondage. They all worked, building the nation that denied their humanity. Many resisted and fought back. And when the Civil War broke out, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, testing whether a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure, hundreds of thousands of African Americans volunteered to fight for and win their own freedom. They and millions of white Americans – native born and immigrants both – defended the cause of freedom and the nation dedicated, though imperfectly, to equality.

The new birth of freedom wasn’t handed to them – they had to stand together and fight for it.

We’ve seen a great deal of strife in our country since last Labor Day. I’m writing this just a few days after the horrible violence in Charlottesville, Va. First, there was a torchlight rally by neo-Nazis and white supremacists and their march onto a university campus. Then it appears that a white supremacist deliberately ran his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors, injuring many and murdering of a young woman named Heather Heyer, who was there to protest the hate represented by these white supremacists.

Polls show our country becoming more polarized. Presidential leadership to bring Americans together is sorely lacking. How do we come together? Where can Americans turn to find a genuine spirit of community?

To me, that spirit of community is the driving force at the heart of America’s labor movement.

America’s labor movement forms our country’s largest organization that belong to working people. People of every ethnicity, every gender and sexuality identity, every religion, from nearly any country you can find on the map, of virtually every age group, every level of educational attainment, are union members. Nearly any job you can think of is part of organized labor.

American workers stand together in our unions because they recognize one simple truth: we are stronger and better together than apart. We will go further and we will accomplish more through unity than through division. We know this because of all that working people have accomplished through this kind of solidarity: We built the American middle class by standing together and building our unions. We know it because we continue to win progress this way to this very day.

America’s unions have never been perfect. We’ve had our own struggles with racial justice, gender justice, and a host of other issues. We’ve squabbled amongst ourselves. We still face these challenges, and will face new ones in the future.

But in the end, America’s unions are of, by, and for working people. And nothing in the world is more powerful than working people standing together, determined to carry our great nation forward.

On Monday, Sep. 4, Philadelphia’s union members will parade along the Delaware waterfront and celebrate Labor Day together at Penn’s Landing. You’ll see all the diversity of our great City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection represented by the scores of unions participating on that day. I will be proud once again to ride in the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO’s float in the parade. And I’ll be overjoyed as I always am to see thousands of union members and their families celebrating everything that our unions stand for: solidarity, pride, dignity, compassion, and justice.

I invite you to join us on Labor Day to celebrate America’s unions. Because the spirit of Union that powers our labor movement is exactly what our nation needs in these difficult times.

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