The first Monday of September is set aside to honor working people and celebrate the efforts of organized labor. It is a time to thank workers for building the middle class and bringing prosperity to our country.
It also a time for labor leaders like myself to write opinion columns reflecting on the struggles still facing workers — an opportunity to educate the public on the adverse effects of increased corporate consolidation, an ever-growing amount of money in politics and, subsequently, the harmful, anti-worker legislation that millions of Americans are currently up against throughout the country.
Although workers continue to struggle in the wake of countless problems — especially here in Atlanta, where income inequality and economic mobility are the highest among the nation’s 50 largest cities — I do not seek to chastise or dwell on the negative on a day that I have always believed to be a joyous occasion.
Instead, I seek to find common ground in the hope of broadening support for the Atlanta metro labor movement in the hopes of building solidarity for workers’ rights and building new support for the union effort. Rather than preach to the choir, I want to reach across the aisle.
Ever since I first joined the labor movement in 1976, becoming a member of the National Football League Players Association, I have been able to make the case for labor unions by posing five simple questions to anyone who doubts the need for representation in the workplace. Most recently, I have posed these questions at several speaking engagements with members of the Atlanta business community, where even among an audience of CEOs, these questions transcended party lines, becoming almost rhetorical.
I begin with a no-brainer, “Do you believe all workers deserve safety on the job?” Everyone nods in agreement, without objection.
We can all agree that safety in the workplace is not just a matter of workers’ rights; it’s a moral right. Throughout labor history, worker safety has been the hardest-fought union issue. And yet, most Americans are unaware that it is an issue we face today. In 2016, nearly 5,000 workers lost their lives and 2.9 million workers were injured while on the job. These deaths and injuries are preventable. By providing a voice in the workplace, the unions give workers the power to bring safety to the workplace.
I then ask, “Do you believe workers deserve a fair paycheck — the right to earn a decent wage to provide for them and their family?” Once again, there are no objections, only nods.
Although we may not all agree on what constitutes fair pay, I think we can all agree that underpaid workers in Atlanta are struggling at the expense of the entire community. That’s why the unions are fighting to win workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour. Better wages will not only help workers succeed, it will also help companies succeed — allowing employers to recruit and retain talent, increase productivity and, in turn, enhance quality and service.
This same logic can be applied to my following three questions: Do you believe workers deserve quality health care? Time off? Retirement security? Nods, nods and more nods.
The struggle for health care, time off and retirement security is a cornerstone of all union contracts. A fair wage means little when you cannot afford health care coverage; likewise, there is no such thing as a good job that leaves workers without time off or the ability to retire with dignity. Collective bargaining is rooted in the well-being of working people. Although some may argue about the details of these protections, I think we can all agree on the need to consider workers’ health and well-being.
Politics can be divisive, but whether Republican or Democrat, we can all agree that we need good middle-class jobs with workplace safety, fair wages, quality health care, sufficient time off and strong retirement security. We have more in common than we think, particularly when it comes to how we treat workers. These five labor issues reflect our core values as Americans.
This Labor Day, let’s all agree on protecting our workers and providing them with the resources and protections needed to provide for their family and live a decent life. The labor unions will continue the fight to make sure the economy works for everybody.
I hope you will join us.
State Rep. Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, is president of the Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and a former Atlanta Falcons player.