One of our esteemed guests on last night’s program was Vinnie Alvarez, President, New York City Labor Council. One of the topics we discussed with him, was the upcoming Labor Day Parade. In the midst of what could have devolved into a simple puff piece, Brother Alvarez made a crucial point. If we in organized labor look back in time, we realize that our Labor Day Parade was more than just a parade, it was a march.
There was a time when everyone in the labor movement had at least one common goal. That was the 8 hour day. For decades it had been the focal point of every worker organization from the National Trades Union, founded in 1834, to the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, to the AFL founded in 1886. Despite a number of differences in the approach and theory of all those movements, they maintained the common theme of the shortened work day. The Haymarket Martyrs died for that cause. Gompers lived for it, and finally, Roosevelt made it a reality in 1938. For over a century, it had been the Holy Grail.
That’s precisely what we need again, a cause celebre’ which unites all workers, organized and not, under one banner, a shared vision among all of us who toil. The one that seems the most obvious to me, is universal health care. That’s the issue to which this year’s Labor Day March should be dedicated. Let us, for one day, drop all internal squabbles that exist within the house of labor, shine a spotlight on the issue of health care, and drive our point home. There will be plenty of time to return to them later if we wish.
Every day needs to be Labor Day. The people who build, operate, maintain, clean and protect our cities and countryside are entitled to be not only fairly compensated, but recognized for the contributions they make, and not vilified and portrayed as takers. We are all blessed to live in a nation where things like roads, bridges, electricity and clean water are (for the most part) taken for granted. Yet, the United States, despite being the world’s largest economy, has still not managed to structure a system that provides basic health care to all its workers. When faced with that reality, every citizen has the right to ask “why not?” Just as “Eight for work, eight for sleep, eight for what we will…” was once the galvanizing element for tradesmen and shirtwaist factory workers alike, so should “Health care for every worker!” be the rallying cry for labor today.
The first Labor Day March in New York in 1882 drew ten thousand workers. What would the response from our elected officials be if ten or fifteen or twenty thousand of us marched, each to the beat of our own drums, but each clinging to the same text, that health care is not a privilege, but a right? And it should be our text, not those of the elected elites who come to give lip service to and curry favor with labor before the primaries and then consistently fail to deliver on carefully crafted and nebulous promises. The text and the platform should belong to labor alone. It is our job to codify and express our expectations, and it is the job of those we put in office to insure delivery.
The consequence for not doing so should be dismissal. If a tradesman does not perform adequately, he “gets his money.” No apologies are offered. No excuses are accepted. It is understood. You have underperformed, so I can’t afford to keep you. The same metric needs to be applied to those who run for office.