Richard Trumka: The key to a better life is a union contract

Many Americans will spend Labor Day at barbecues, festivals and other family events. Some will lament the end of summer. Others will cheer the beginning of football season. But we must remember what Labor Day is truly about: a recognition and celebration of working people.

Working men and women are demanding to be recognized for our hard work, our sweat, our sacrifice and our innovation. We are speaking out for an economy that rewards work over wealth and gives all of us the opportunity to achieve a better life — a better life that has slipped out of reach for too many families.

Employers who have experienced record profits continue to hold down workers' wages. Income inequality has skyrocketed to historic levels. And working men and women still struggle to afford life's basic necessities. But it does not have to be this way.

The insanity of today's economy is not like the weather. It is a decadeslong, man-made disaster perpetrated by big corporations who want to consolidate wealth in the hands of the very few. Simply put, failed public policies have stacked the deck against working people. It is time for us to stand up and fight back.

The single best way to build an economy of shared prosperity that lifts up working men and women is to give more workers access to collective bargaining by protecting their freedom to form unions. This is a central component of the AFL-CIO's Raising Wages agenda.


Over the last 40 years, as union membership has declined, so has the share of middle-class income. This is not a coincidence. When workers are unable to bargain with our employers, we have no say over pay, benefits and working conditions. This drives down wages across the board and prevents working families from grabbing our fair share of the economic pie.

Big corporations understand this. That's why they have spent so much time, energy and money in an effort to deny workers a voice on the job. That's why they have fired workers who have attempted to form unions on the job. That's why they have subjected workers to mandatory meetings designed to discourage unionization. That's why they have pushed for passage of right-to-work laws and tried to dismantle the National Labor Relations Board.

This unprecedented attack on working men and women has taken its toll. Even as our economy has grown and corporate profits have risen, most of us have not experienced an improvement in our own standard of living.

But the news is not all grim. Across the nation, we are seeing teachers, nurses and first responders join with those in manufacturing, engineering, service and retail to demand a voice on the job. This momentum was clearly demonstrated in a recent Gallup poll that showed support for unions at a seven-year high.

We are also in the midst of an exceptional moment for collective bargaining. Millions of American workers will bargain contracts by the end of 2016, and considering that most of the largest organized workforces are going to the bargaining table, it is likely that more workers will seek raises through collective bargaining in the next two years than at any other point in recent American labor history.

This is already starting to pay dividends. In the first six months of this year alone, working people in all kinds of jobs won an average pay increase of 4.3 percent the old-fashioned way — by demanding it.

But even in this historic period for collective bargaining, the vast majority of workers still lack a voice on the job. So we are demanding that the rights of working men and women are protected and strengthened. Every worker who wants to join a union should be able to do so, free from intimidation. And employers who break the law must be held to account and made to pay.

This Labor Day, let's stand together for good wages, great benefits, paid time off and fair schedules. Let's demand economic justice for immigrant workers and people of color. Let's speak out for equal pay for women and job protections for those in the LGBT community. Let's level the playing field so working people have a fighting chance. And let's do it by giving more workers access to the single greatest ticket to a better life — a union contract.


Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO. He wrote this for

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