The importance of a strong and vibrant labor movement

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

Most Americans have a vague idea that Labor Day is intended to acknowledge the achievements and sacrifices of working people and what they have meant to our collective history. Yet drowned out by commercials for blowout sales and plans for barbecues, the holiday can often seem like an empty nod to some distant past.

But Labor Day was borne out of action, not some sentimental acknowledgement of people who work hard, and that action led to changes that have improved the lives of every single woman and man who works for a living.

Thousands of low-wage workers planted the seeds for what would eventually become the holiday when they peacefully marched in New York in 1882. Many of the workers were forced to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, and they called for less work and more pay. Their call to action eventually led to the eight-hour work day and countless other protections for working people.

What’s more, the collective action that inspired the holiday is still happening among workers today. In fact, workers who stand together and fight for change are the one force that can counteract the massive dollars and political capital spent by corporate billionaires that has left us with the deepest income inequality of our time.

These struggles are happening across the nation and likely in your neighborhoods, too.

Over the Labor Day weekend, the California Labor Federation’s legislative director tweeted a host of legislative victories this year alone that resulted from workers standing together in their unions. Many of these advancements would provide tangible and real protections for all workers against harassment and discrimination called out in the #metoo movement. Most have cleared the Legislature and are awaiting signature by the governor:

  • Banning forced arbitrations: AB3080 (Gonzalez) prohibits employers from requiring workers to sign away their rights as a condition of employment or from firing workers because they don’t want to sign an arbitration agreement. These agreements have been used to silence women and cover up allegations of sexual misconduct, keeping victims in the shadows.
  • Protections for temporary workers: AB3081 (Gonzalez) creates joint liability for companies using temporary or contract workers when those workers are harassed on the job and creates a presumption of retaliation when workers are fired after reporting sexual harassment.
  • Protections for tradeswomen: SB1223 (Galgiani) creates a training and prevention program that is specific to the construction industry to stop sexual harassment and discrimination. And AB2358 (Carillo) creates protocols for training, prevention and handling of discrimination and harassment claims in apprenticeship programs and allows unions to deny apprentices to employers who do not protect them from harassment or discrimination.
  • Protections for janitors: AB2079 (Gonzalez) creates an advisory committee to prevent sexual violence and harassment in the janitorial industry, including peer-to-peer training.
  • Protections for homecare workers: AB3082 (Gonzalez) creates training materials and data collection to address sexual harassment of homecare workers.
  • Stopping wage theft at California’s ports: SB1402 (Lara) holds retailers liable if they contract with trucking companies that have unpaid wage judgments against them.

This is not even the full list. And it’s no surprise that a majority of these bills were authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales-Fletcher, who came into the Legislature after leading the labor movement in San Diego.

These advancements don’t happen by accident. They happen because workers stand together, sometimes taking the same risks that those workers did in New York more than a century ago when they went on strike for a day to challenge unfair pay and hours. They happen because workers continue to stand together and take action.

Our world is changing more rapidly than ever before, and with it, the nature of work is changing too. One of the most simple and profound ways to make sure working people aren’t left behind in this change — and to continue the progress generations of workers have fought to achieve — is to support a strong and vibrant labor movement not just on Labor Day, but every day.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: September 6, 2018