September 1, 2016
By Edward M. Smith
New York, NY – For generations, Americans have celebrated Labor Day as a way to honor hard work and the struggle for better lives by those who do it.
But today our nation finds itself at a crossroads. One path moves us forward and offers hope, while the other turns back the clock and punishes those trying to make ends meet. Each of us has a hand in which direction we take.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, today we have the highest level of income inequality in nearly 100 years. Nearly half of all income flows to the top 10 percent, the most disproportionate share since 1917. Nearly a fourth of children in the U.S. – 16 million kids – live in poverty, and the impact follows them throughout their lives, further accelerating inequality. To earn a paycheck that equates to a living wage in most states, a current minimum-wage worker would have to labor nearly 100 hours a week every week of the year.
While to many it seems our nation has become precariously close to irreversible decline, I don’t buy it. This Labor Day offers hope for a different direction and at the heart of that hope are unions and their allies. A simple fact illustrates the crucial, historic role we have to play: inequality rises in lockstep with declining union membership, and when unions were strongest, inequality was lowest.
The power of the 15 million workers who are union members has always been how workers get ahead together and that has never been more true than today. Unthinkable only a few years ago, the movement to double the federal minimum wage has succeeded in pockets around the country, and for the first time a major political party has a $15 minimum wage as a key plank of its platform. That’s a movement strongly supported and in many cases led by unions.
Raising wages is only one clear example of the crossroads we face and how working people can make a difference by using the power we have. Workers exhausted by multiple jobs are catching the ears of policy-makers, making it reasonable to suggest that employees deserve a measure of control over their work-life. Rather than accept calls to cut the Social Security safety net, voices in support of expanding and strengthening retirement security are growing louder.
As with wages, the driving strength behind the struggle for a dignified retirement and a work-life that leaves time for family life has always been unions and that remains true today. Whether fast-food workers, taxi-drivers, autoworkers, teachers, firefighters or construction workers, the demand for a fairer economy is catching fire.
Warding off attacks and moving our nation step by step toward greater equality and economic growth doesn’t happen by itself. Throughout the history of our great country, working people have struggled, suffered and taken risks to improve their lives, and by doing so they built an economy with the greatest middle class in history.
This Labor Day let’s honor those who came before us and recognize we will always have work to do. Let’s continue to join those fighting for a union, for a living minimum wage, for reasonable work hours and secure retirements, and let’s put the power of our money to work with partners who invest in ways that create good union jobs, as we do at Ullico.
When the fortunes of working men and women decline, as they do when unions decline, the fortunes of our entire nation fall with it. And when the prospects for working people and their families rise – as they do when unions are strongest – our nation rises with them.
Edward M. Smith is President and CEO of Ullico Inc., the largest labor-owned insurance and investment company in the United States.