OP-ED: Labor Day 2020: Workers need power

Kathy Wilkes
Tribune News Service
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin departs after a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on August 5, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Labor Day 2020 doesn’t have much for us everyday wage earners to celebrate. We’re struggling to pay bills and keep safe as COVID-19 runs its odious course. Our nation has bungled its response to the crisis, and we are paying the price.

In July, the U.S. unemployment rate stood just above 10%, down from a more-than-70-year high of 14.7% in April. More than 51 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, over 16 million lost employer-provided health insurance and 26 million are hungry.

Lack of federal leadership and scattershot “reopen” plans in states are driving COVID-19 spikes all over the country. The virus has infected more than 6 million Americans, killing more than 180,000. Thousands on the front lines of essential services have died.

As U.S. workplaces become more dangerous, President Donald Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is lying down on the job. Offering only “guidelines” employers can ignore, the agency isn’t enforcing the law requiring workplaces to be “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Where’s Congress? Missing in action.

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Bills passed in the Democratic-controlled House linger while the Republican-dominated Senate remains adjourned into September. Stimulus talks between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasurer Steve Mnuchin, who gets his marching orders from the White House, are stalled. Expanded unemployment benefits and eviction protection have expired, leaving millions desperate and scrambling.

Meanwhile, no expense is spared for the richest Americans. They’ve gotten trillions in tax cuts, pandemic “relief” and other largesse on top of their already gargantuan wealth that has mushroomed during the crisis. Somehow, the Federal Reserve has managed to scrounge $7 trillion for bond and stock buys to prop up corporations and keep executive compensation in the ozone.

Let’s be honest: One big reason all this is happening is that labor has lost power. Our energies are diverted by the politics of division along lines of race, gender and nationality. We’re sapped by hucksters capitalizing on our impotence and rage. We’re drained from squabbling among ourselves.

This is nothing new. In 1886, robber baron Jay Gould reportedly bragged, “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”

America’s rich never got over the fact that workers gained some labor rights in 1935 and, through organizing, formed a movement that eventually created the greatest middle class in history. That’s gone now. After decades of government-sanctioned union busting, offshoring and automation, we’re almost back to square one, careening toward catastrophe.

We need to get back on track.

Here’s a start: Let’s think carefully about elected officials who really have our backs and who are just playing us. Turn off the noise and look closely at what they do and how they vote versus what they say to the cameras. Let them know we’re watching and then hold them accountable by supporting only those who help us survive and thrive.

Next, we must connect with the larger labor movement, which is exclusively devoted to the interests of working people. Meeting with area labor councils, we can learn about our rights, discuss needs and priorities and avail ourselves of community services they offer — all with an eye toward deploying our collective strength.

First steps can be intimidating. But, given where we are now, we may have no other choice. There’s a proven way forward with courage and commitment. It worked before. It can work again. It’s time to get our power back.

— Kathy Wilkes of Madison, Wisconsin, is a longtime labor journalist and former union co-founder and officer. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.