Editor’s Note: The following is a special Labor Day op-ed from NYC Council Member Justin Brannan representing Brooklyn’s 43rd District.
They say a society grows great when people recognize the importance of planting trees whose shade they may never enjoy. To most, Labor Day marks the end of another summer. But it’s also the one day a year we set aside to honor and celebrate the hardworking women and men who stood up for so many of the things we take for granted today. Things like the 8-hour workday, weekends, minimum wage, overtime pay, safe workplace laws, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans – none of these things would’ve been possible without the sacrifice and leadership of the American labor movement.
Today, many of these hard-fought cornerstones of the working and middle class are under siege. Make no mistake, as big corporations continue to undermine the right of employees to organize and collectively bargain, wicked minds are burning the midnight oil, drafting legislation that seeks to make life even easier for the rich and powerful. And unfortunately, they’re winning. More wealth is concentrated in the hands of fewer people than ever before. Younger generations are saddled with debt, while older generations still live paycheck to paycheck. People are working 2-3 jobs just to stay afloat. And when the bad guys are this powerful, you cannot face them by making incremental fixes to our economic system. You have to fight fire with fire. Which is why it is time for an organized labor revolution in this country.
I want to live in a country where there are as many union halls as shopping malls, where our schools to teach kids about Samuel Gompers and Mother Jones, where we all understand that being part of a labor union is as American as warm apple pie. I want to get to a place where all workers know their rights as well as they know their own phone number. I want a labor movement that cuts across race, color, gender, age and national origin. We need a movement like that not only to protect workers from whatever uncertain economic future we may be facing, but to help us unify and move forward.
Because it’s clear that this unprecedented era of wealth inequality is wreaking havoc on the very ways we interact with each other. We’re all squeezed, we’re all frustrated. And all too often I see people take their anger out on the little guy – the person they perceive to be beneath them – for their woes. Blaming immigrants, blaming poor people, blaming people who are also down on their luck. Meanwhile, it’s not the little guy who is stealing wages. It’s not that little guy who is monopolizing entire industries and wiping out jobs. It’s not the little guy who is profiting off of basic needs like healthcare, destroying the air we breathe and the water we drink, all while lobbying our government to avoid paying their share of taxes. It’s the big guy — the guy on top. It’s the guy with the most power and access. And trust me, the big guy absolutely wants us to blame the little guy, so that we’re distracted fighting with each other while he’s rifling through our pockets and robbing us all blind. We all need to go after that big guy. We need to stop punching down, and start punching up.
We absolutely can create a society that is more equal, where a worker gets her fair share. And we can unify and heal from the disparities that have been tearing us apart. But we cannot do it without a labor movement. So that when our grandchildren celebrate Labor Day they can reflect proudly on the protections and benefits we secured for them. We owe it to them, and we owe it to each other.