By John Risch, National Legislative Director, SMART Transportation Division


Enjoy yourself this Labor Day weekend, provided you’re lucky enough to get the weekend off. In my 30 plus years working freight rail, I worked many a Labor Day weekend, but I am lucky to get this one off and plan to march with our Nebraska members in the Omaha Labor Day parade.
What’s Labor Day all about anyway? While it’s evolved into the last summer picnic or camping trip or a time to hit the back-to-school sales at the mall, that wasn’t the original intent of Labor Day.
Labor Day was started to honor the American worker, or as the Department of Labor states: “Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”
On Labor Day I like to reflect on the progress America’s workers have made in the past 135 years, since the first Labor Day. In 1884, there were no weekends off, overtime pay, minimum wage laws, workplace safety regulations, employer provided health insurance, pensions, paid vacations and the list goes on.
Each and every one of those gains have been made because workers – through their unions – have demanded them and won, over the objections of their employers. It was and continues to be America’s unions that have improved American workplaces.
Union density in America has dropped significantly from its high in 1954. Much of the reason is weak labor laws and fierce employer resistance to workers who try to organize. With that decline in union density, worker income has declined as well. We have all heard the adage, “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” which is statistically true and the primary reason is that America’s unionization rate has fallen. This gutting of America’s middle-class causes all kinds of socio-economic problems.
The fix to all of this is to fix America’s labor laws and enforcement to make it easier for workers to form unions and negotiate the fair pay and benefits they deserve.
Workers through their unions built America’s middle-class and the decline of our country’s middle-class is largely attributable to the decline in America’s union density. Improved labor laws with strong enforcement will revitalize the labor movement and help rebuild our middle class.
So as you relax this weekend, take a moment and think about what unions have done in our country to make life better for not just union members, but all who work for wages.