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America’s Future is at Stake this Labor Day

"San Francisco Labor Temple Wall Painting"

"San Francisco Labor Temple Wall Painting" by xeeliz. The San Francisco Temple of Labor was built to house the San Francisco Labor Council and labor union offices and to provide a meeting hall for San Francisco's unions. The building was the primary center for the city's historic labor community for over half a century and played a significant role in the 1934 citywide labor strike for better working conditions.

As we celebrate Labor Day 2011, working families face greater attacks on their economic security than at any time since the days of the robber barons in the late19th Century.  In state houses across the country, politicians backed by Wall Street billionaires are attacking fundamental reforms that union members fought and won over many decades, reforms like collective bargaining, child labor laws, safety regulations and even the right of workers to vote.  In the U.S. House of Representatives, right-wing forces have passed legislation to eliminate Medicare, undermine Social Security and increase the taxes paid by working families while giving massive benefits to corporations and the very rich.

Rather than pulling together to find real solutions to our problems, anti-worker billionaires and the politicians they fund are mobilizing to transfer all the burdens of taxation onto working families.  Under the budget bill supported by all except nine Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate, taxes would increase for the working middle class while the wealthiest one percent would find their taxes cut in half.  Millionaires would be taxed at a lower effective rate than anyone working nine to five for a paycheck.  That’s not a real solution, and it does nothing to create jobs.

We fought for reforms . . .

Unions opposed these measures.  The labor movement worked long and hard to enact reforms like the progressive income tax, Social Security and Medicare.  On Labor Day and every day, we need to remember that winning those victories – and so many others – was not a day at the beach or a walk in the park.  When unions fought for collective bargaining rights, for the eight hour work day, to expand non-discrimination laws, to restrict the use of child labor and to enforce workplace safety regulations, we were always opposed by Wall Street.  Yet, today, too many Americans take those reforms for granted.  But many realize how important these reforms were.  And they are mobilizing to oppose the concerted efforts underway across the country to repeal them, along with other policies and laws that have promoted social and economic justice. 

In Maine, for example, union members fought Governor Paul LePage and his allies who tried to make an end run around child labor laws.  We fought their efforts to eliminate restrictions on the hours children can work and to lower wages for teenagers by more than $2 an hour.  We are fighting the efforts of right-wing legislators in more than a dozen states who are trying to undermine the Voting Rights Act by requiring voters to obtain government issued identity cards before they can cast a ballot.  These misnamed “Voter ID” laws are part of an orchestrated effort to disenfranchise more than 21 million Americans – including many senior citizens – who do not have government-issued identification.

Some politicians want to undermine long-established reforms . . .

We’re calling out the radical proposals by top candidates running for president to undermine long-established reforms backed by America’s labor movement.  Texas Governor Rick Perry, for example, honestly believes that America should consider repealing the ability of citizens to vote for their U.S. senators.  He’s wrong.  Michelle Bachmann calls for an end to the minimum wage.  She’s wrong.  And Ron Paul says we should eliminate FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and go back to the time when thousands died when hurricanes hit them.   He’s dead wrong.

During the last decade, the CEOs at America’s largest corporations have cut nearly 3 million jobs in the United States while adding more than 2 million overseas.  They’ve increased their own salaries to obscene levels, while freezing and cutting the pay of their workers.  Left to their own devices, they would continue to act irresponsibly and drive our economy through the ditches created by their greed and irresponsibility. They would eliminate every reform that protects their workers or keeps them from hoarding every dollar earned by the increased productivity of America’s workers.  Only strong unions stand in their way.  Just as we fought for important reforms in generations past, we are fighting for America’s working men and women today.

Working men and women are fighting back . . .

It is heartening, on Labor Day, to reflect on the efforts of working men and women across the country who are mobilizing in numbers not seen in a generation to protect their interests.  We see it in Ohio and Wisconsin, where working families have formed a powerful Main Street Movement to fight the efforts of special interests to undermine their ability to provide for their families.  Last month in Wisconsin, for example, voters turned out in massive numbers and replaced two Wisconsin state senators who had voted to eliminate the right of collective bargaining that public employees in the state had won more than a half century ago.  Working families in Ohio collected more than a million signatures to put a citizens’ veto on the ballot this fall to overturn Draconian anti-worker legislation pushed through in Ohio by their right-wing governor and his Wall Street allies.

Now, more than at any time in recent years, workers are aware of how the deck has been stacked against them.  Yet the focus of too many politicians has not been on pulling together to find real solutions or creating good jobs or helping working middle class families hold on to their homes and their dreams for the future.  Instead, they are giving even more power to the greedy interests who created the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  These are the same forces that in earlier times created sweatshops, sent children into mines, denied more than half the country the right to vote and hand-picked corrupt senators to represent them on Capitol Hill.

By pulling together in the past, America’s working families set our nation on a different course.  This Labor Day, we are sending the powerful CEOs and their political allies a new message:  We will not turn back the clock.  We are prepared to fight for the future.

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Gerald McEntee

Gerald McEntee

Gerald W. McEntee is the International President of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the most aggressive and politically active organizing unions in the AFL-CIO. Since 2006, 145,000 women and men have changed their lives by forming a union with AFSCME. McEntee was first elected AFSCME President in 1981 and was re-elected in July 2008 to another four-year term.

As a Vice President of the AFL-CIO and chair of the Political Education Committee, McEntee is a key leader of the labor movement and its political efforts. Under McEntee’s leadership, the federation created its highly successful and much imitated voter education and mobilization program, which increased the number of union household voters to a record 26 percent of the electorate in 2006.

McEntee has long been a leader in the fight to reform the nation’s health care system. He chairs the AFL-CIO’s Health Care Committee and is a co-chair of Health Care for America NOW!, a national grassroots coalition that has launched a $40 million campaign to guarantee quality, affordable health care for all Americans.

McEntee is a co-founder and chairman of the board of the Economic Policy Institute, the preeminent voice for working Americans on the economy. He led the successful fight to stop President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, was an outspoken proponent for increasing the federal minimum wage, and is one of the nation’s leading advocates for America’s vital public services.

For his efforts to improve the lives of working families, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights presented McEntee with its prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Award in 2004.

Before assuming the presidency of AFSCME, McEntee began his distinguished career as a labor leader in Pennsylvania in 1958. He led the drive to unionize more than 75,000 Pennsylvania public service employees, which at that time was the largest union mobilization in history. He was elected Executive Director at the founding convention of AFSCME Council 13 in Pennsylvania in 1973 and an International Vice President of AFSCME in 1974.

McEntee holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. A native of Philadelphia, McEntee and his wife Barbara live in Washington, DC.

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