Today is Labor Day. It should be a day to celebrate our achievement of an economy in which the least powerful workers among us have safe working environments, fair compensation, quality health care and economic security in their retirement years. But that is not the America of 2020.
So today, I look to the past for inspiration.
I recall with fondness the working lives of my family and their friends and neighbors in Brooklyn while I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of them, like my own grandparents, were proud first generation Americans, some still working hard to communicate in English. My grandparents, a plumber and a bookkeeper, were able to live their own version of the American Dream because their unions achieved for them, through collective bargaining, reasonable wages, safe working conditions, good health care and a meaningful pension that provided income through their retirement years. They entered the workforce without high school educations and they never became wealthy, but they had self-respect and a good life.
My grandfather spent more than 40 years –starting at age 16— installing plumbing in military and commercial boats built in the Brooklyn shipyards and in many of the skyscrapers rising from the dirt in Manhattan. He did so year round in every weather condition Mother Nature imposed on the New York Region.
My grandmother left school at age 14 to raise her young siblings after her mother’s early death. She later worked as a bookkeeper in a Brooklyn garment factory while raising my father.
My grandparents worked hard but they felt valued and protected in the workplace. Because they had good pensions, they were able to retire in Florida and buy their first home. It was modest, but it was theirs. They had their own orange and grapefruit trees. They took an occasional cruise to the Bahamas and passed their days with lifetime friends who joined them in their Florida retirement, the men playing hours of shuffleboard and the women bingo and gin rummy. As my grandfather would regularly say about retirement, “It is wonderful, every day is Sunday.”
Where is that life now for first generation Americans without formal education? The unions that were so important in helping working people to enter the middle class in the post WWII years have largely collapsed as a force in our society. Good wages, good health care and good pensions are no longer a given for hard working people. While statutory protections are far stronger, accessing them is often an arduous task and fraught with peril.
As I look at the fissures in our society today – the staggering unemployment, the proliferation of opioid and other drug addictions in many working class communities of all races and ethnicities, and the ever diminishing prospects of workers in the manufacturing and service industries— I find it hard to understand how hard working people can be so much worse off now than they were in the mid-20th century.
My grandparents had a good life. Don’t those who build our roads and bridges, ensure our public safety, educate and care for our children and take care of homes and properties deserve the same? Is anything more important in rebuilding a civil society of citizens unified in their common purpose to strive collectively to achieve the American dream for themselves and their families?
I ask you today to spend a little time this Labor Day week thinking about how we can work together to achieve a better and more stable work environment for those who work hard every day but are without power in the workforce so we can once again view Labor Day as a cause for celebration of how our economy operates to provide self-respect for our workers and a real opportunity for them to reap the rewards of their hard work and achieve the American dream of a middle class life style like that available to my grandparents and their friends and neighbors.