President Grover Cleveland set aside the first Monday in September for the celebration of working people and made it a national holiday in 1894. Over the years, the day has come to mean the last farewell to summer and is marked by camping, swimming, boating and barbecues, and that's great. Organized labor celebrates the day with picnics across the state. But it is equally important to remember that the day gives all of us an opportunity to reflect on those issues that labor holds dear: good jobs, health care, strong communities.
Through unions, workers win better wages, benefits and a voice on the job - and good union jobs mean stronger communities. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Earnings, January 2004, and Bureau of Labor Statistics and Employee Benefits in Private Industry 2000, union workers earn 27 percent more than nonunion workers, and are more likely to receive health care and pension benefits than those without a union. Unions lead the fight for better lives for working people, such as expanded medical and family leave, improved safety and health protections and fair-trade agreements that lift the standard of living for workers all over the world. And unions are continuing the fight today to improve life for all working families in America.
For decades, union membership paved the way to a strong and growing middle class. As union membership declined, the gap between the wealthy and everyone else grew. Better wages and benefits through unions mean that more families can make it on their own in the community - and the wage and benefit floor is lifted for everyone.
Studies show that states in which many of the workers have a union are also states with lower poverty rates, better schools and less crime. Unions' training and apprenticeship programs provide much-needed job opportunities - unions train more workers each year than any organization except the U.S. military. Millions of workers would join a union tomorrow, but too few will ever get that chance because employers routinely violate workers' freedom to improve their lives through a union. When employers respect their employees' choices, the community benefits from stronger tax bases, more stable families and healthier local economies.
With all of this in mind, are we better off since Labor Day 2003? Has our economic situation changed for the better? Are our jobs secure? Do we have affordable health care coverage? Can we send our kids to college?
Struggling U.S. families
If you can't answer "yes" to any of these questions, you join millions of working families in the U.S. today struggling to hold on to the middle class. Millions of others have given up hope of ever making it into the middle class. One of the most pressing issues for working families today is the explosive rise in health care costs. Workers' premium costs for family health insurance coverage at work increased by nearly 50 percent from 2001 and 2004 according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. One in seven U.S. families had to choose between paying for health care, food or housing. The meteoric health care costs threaten any real paycheck increases gained through collective bargaining because most of the bargained raises must now go directly to health care. This leaves virtually nothing on the check to cover the increasing costs of everyday living.
This is why the Montana State AFL-CIO is committed to do all that we can to help restore and create good employment opportunities here in Montana. We're willing to work with anyone or any organization that shares this goal. Our first priority is to get labor-friendly politicians elected that will work tirelessly for the benefit of the workers of Montana. From state houses to the White House, labor has vowed to "take back America!"
Remember, unions help make sure our nation prioritizes working people's issues - they hold corporations accountable, make workplaces safe, protect Social Security and retirement, fight for quality health care and make sure working people have time to spend with their families. If unions weren't out there fighting for these issues, who would?
So, on Monday, please attend one of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council picnics in your area and share a well-deserved day of fun, relaxation, good food and to take back America, calling for good jobs, health care and the right priorities.
Montana AFL-CIO President Jim McGarvey and Executive Secretary Jerry Driscoll work in Helena.