Opinion: On Labor Day, Honor the Heroes Reporting to Work During the Pandemic

This Labor Day weekend, millions of us will celebrate a three-day weekend with cookouts and trips to the beach. In a time of pandemic, this holiday lends itself to socially distanced celebration. While we all deserve some fun this weekend, it’s important to remember why we have this holiday and consider those who have been working on the front lines throughout this pandemic.

We did not always have Labor Day. Until 125 years ago — not even two lifetimes — working Americans were exploited, never celebrated. The average worker toiled all day, seven days a week, in unsanitary conditions and without any protection, just to survive.

What ended this nightmare? The labor movement. Working people joined together in union to demand better conditions and pay from employers as well as safety standards and protections from the government.

Eight-hour workdays, five-day work weeks, the weekend: all of these facts of modern life exist because organized labor fought for them. The positive impacts of unions are so ubiquitous that we often take them for granted. Even Americans who do not belong to unions are beneficiaries of union victories. If you have a three-day weekend this week — or even a two-day weekend on any other week — you have unions to thank.

Of course, many today would argue that they do not have weekends off, that they work more than 40 hours per week and are not seeing their pay increase with productivity and experience. The right question to ask such a person would be, “Are you a union member?” The answer is likely “no”. It’s a sad truth that millions of Americans are working harder for less and see no way to get ahead.

A rise in unionization a century ago brought us this long weekend and an almost immeasurably improved standard of living for all Americans. In recent decades, we’ve seen a decline in unionization, and the results speak for themselves. Wages have not increased with worker productivity for over 45 years. The wealth and income gaps are the widest they’ve been and Americans are sinking in debt just to maintain their standard of living.

While the minimum wage is still not a living wage and tens of millions are out of work, a handful of billionaires have increased their already impossible fortunes just since the pandemic began. It could not be more clear: we need to join together in union to restore the middle class. The new status quo is not sustainable.

Throughout the pandemic, many workers have been deemed essential, and our union has the immense pleasure of representing thousands of essential workers. These are the public school support staff who disinfect facilities and equipment, distribute technology for distance learning, and who have prepared over four million meals to students in need.

Many are reporting to work in person, putting themselves at risk to feed, educate, and assist our children. They are the silent heroes working to make distance learning possible for teachers and students. They don’t seek wealth or fame; it’s love for our children that inspires their work and the stability of a union job that sustains them.

Fortunately for these education support professionals we count among our members, they have a union and an employer we consider a partner. They have professionals representing their interests and an administration providing the equipment needed to keep them safe. The fact remains, however, that while many will work from home after this weekend’s beaches and barbeques, our members on the front lines will be reporting to work in person to keep our school system running as classes are taught virtually. We owe them our thanks and respect.

To all our members, thank you for your selfless and tireless work. And to all workers still organizing for a fairer workplace and a brighter tomorrow, we stand in solidarity with you. This holiday honors you all.

— PIA MORRISON

The writer is president of SEIU Local 500, which represents more than 20,000 educational support professionals, childcare providers, adjunct professors, and non-profit workers in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia.