As we celebrate Labor Day this year, I’m tempted as usual to look back and draw inspiration from the countless victories that the labor movement has won for the American people over the years. Things that we now take for granted — such as the weekend and eight-hour workdays, social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare, and basic workplace safety laws — would not have been possible without brave working people choosing to lock arms and fight for their rights.
But this year, it is more important than ever that we also look forward. After decades of attacks from corporate boardrooms, conservative billionaires and extreme politicians, the labor movement once again has momentum on our side — and lots of it.
That’s because the union difference is undeniable. Unionized workers make more money than non-union workers. They have better benefits, safer working conditions, and a more secure retirement. And most importantly, when the bosses get greedy and start to demand a larger slice of the pie, unionized workers are ready to fight back.
And when workers are fighting back, for the first time in a long time, we know we have a friend and ally in the White House in President Biden. When he came into office, he promised to be the most pro-union president in history, and his policies are making it easier for workers to feel the union difference in their everyday lives.
AFGE members know firsthand how valuable a union is. This year alone, we’ve racked up major contract victories for over 300,000 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs and 42,000 employees at the Social Security Administration. And earlier this summer, 63,000 Transportation Security Administration workers who keep our skies safe won the largest pay increase in the agency’s history.
And it’s not just government employees who are reaping the benefits of a union. We’ve seen countless examples of that momentum over the past year as workers across the country, from all backgrounds and every industry, are standing up and making their voices heard in record numbers.
Whether it’s baristas in Buffalo, screenwriters in Hollywood, Teamsters at UPS, or auto workers in Michigan, what these workers all have in common is that they are not afraid to demand the fair wages and working conditions that they deserve. They’re not afraid to call out the CEOs who have been getting rich while everyone else struggles to get by. And they are not afraid to fight for their fellow co-workers who are marching alongside them — and the next generation of workers who will come after us.
In 2021, when Starbucks sent expensive union-busting consultants to intimidate workers in Buffalo who were voting to become the company’s first unionized store, they thought they were going to crush our movement. Two years later, more than 340 Starbucks around the country are unionized. When television and movie writers in Hollywood went out on strike in May to demand fair pay, they brought the entire entertainment industry to a standstill. Now, actors have joined them out on the picket lines. And with the Big Three auto companies’ labor contracts coming to an end in ten days, 150,000 autoworkers are making clear that they aren’t going to settle for a single cent less than they’re worth.
Their bravery is infectious. Polls show that public approval of labor unions is at 71 percent. That number has risen sharply in recent years, especially in the wake of the pandemic, when essential workers kept our country running during its darkest period in decades. And when people see that these actions are getting real results for workers, that’s only going to increase our momentum.
On this Labor Day, as we draw inspiration from the movement that workers across the country have created, let’s make sure that this momentum doesn’t go to waste. Let’s build on our progress so that we have something to pass along to the next generation of workers — and give them something to celebrate in the future.
Everett Kelley is the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which is the largest union representing federal and D.C. government employees.
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