In 1936, during the throes of the Great Depression, FDR addressed a deeply divided and economically insecure nation on the eve of Labor Day.
“There are those who fail to read both the signs of the times and American history. They would try to refuse the worker any effective power to bargain collectively, to earn a decent livelihood and to acquire security. It is those short-sighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in human life.”
The parallels to what’s happening today are remarkable.
While the circumstances differ from now, the insecurity so many felt in 1936 is as strong as it was then. It exists across sectors. It exists regardless of geography. It exists because the wealthy few have reaped the rewards of our labor without sharing the prosperity. It exists because corporate titans continue to negotiate 20 million dollar compensation packages for themselves but won’t allow workers to negotiate a living wage.
Inequality then, like now, undermined the American Dream.
FDR understood what many economists understand today. Collective bargaining is the great equalizer. And working people standing together in a union is THE solution to growing income inequality.
The great middle class that FDR built in partnership with our grandparents and great-grandparents’ unions is falling apart. Wages have decoupled from productivity. Most income gains are going to the wealthiest among us, leaving working people behind. Pay disparities by race and gender persist.
But there is hope. During the Great Depression, collective action ultimately righted the ship. Unions grew. Americans came together. And we see some of that same energy gathering today.
The Fight for 15.
The immigration reform movement.
Black Lives Matter.
It’s an energy that the Koch Brothers and their ilk fear.
Because, as we’ve shown in California, when we stand together, anything’s possible. That’s what a union is all about. Making the impossible happen.
From San Diego and LA to the Bay Area, we’re lifting up communities with higher wages. We’re protecting pensions so that workers can have security in retirement. We’re making sure health care is accessible and affordable. We’re ensuring that when workers get sick, they have a few paid days off. We’re striking back against wage theft and other ways bosses are cheating workers. And much more. Unions are still the driving force behind economic equality.
To quote FDR one more time:
“Labor Day, belongs to all of us. Labor Day, symbolizes the hope of all Americans.
The Fourth of July commemorates our political freedom — a freedom which without economic freedom is meaningless indeed. Labor Day symbolizes our determination to achieve an economic freedom for the average man which will give his political freedom reality.”
Labor Day isn’t just a celebration of workers. It’s a celebration of the freedom and democracy we uphold. It’s a celebration of the ideals the American Dream represents. And it’s a great reminder that unions – which created the first Labor Day more than 130 years ago – are still a beacon of hope for millions.
Happy Labor Day!