Labor Day is a time to celebrate and reflect

People gather around the grave site of Ralph Chaplin and his wife Edith in 2007 to celebrate his life during the Ralph Chaplin Labor Day Memorial Service at Calvary Cemetery in Tacoma.
People gather around the grave site of Ralph Chaplin and his wife Edith in 2007 to celebrate his life during the Ralph Chaplin Labor Day Memorial Service at Calvary Cemetery in Tacoma. The News Tribune file, 2007

Labor Day was created to celebrate the American labor movement and commemorate the social and economic achievements of workers. I want to take this opportunity to thank all workers for the contributions they make to strengthen our economy and our communities.

While Labor Day, for most, is part of a three-day, end-of-summer weekend to enjoy family and friends, it is also a day of reflection.

The Pierce County Central Labor Council, led by Patty Rose and Vance Lelli, begin Labor Day by gathering with workers and community activists at the gravesite of Ralph Chaplin at the Calvary Cemetery. Chaplin was a labor writer and editor who wrote the union anthem, “Solidarity Forever.”

We gather at the gravesite not only to honor the man and the spirit of the song he wrote, 100 years ago this year, but also to talk about how we rebuild an economy where all workers get to share in the prosperity that they have created.

Though corporate Washington has recovered from the Great Recession, the economy is still out of balance for most workers. Good jobs with decent wages and benefits are becoming rare as the economy proliferates low-paying part-time jobs.

What’s worse, jobs are being “Uberized,” where workers are being forced into so-called independent contractor status to relieve the employer from any responsibility for workplace protections or benefits. That puts all workplace liabilities onto workers.

Wages are too low, and too few workers have a voice at work. I worry about our children and their ability to ever reach the American Dream. Low wages, rising student debt and skyrocketing housing costs have more 20-somethings moving back home, or doubling and tripling up in apartments. My generation did not have to face these obstacles.

But I do have hope. Workers are uniting under the banner of “raising wages” with initiatives in our state and around the country on the minimum wage, paid sick days, family leave, equal pay, rebuilding our infrastructure and creating a new alternative energy economy.

As our drought continues and forest fires devastate large parts of Eastern Washington, the impacts of climate change are bearing harshly down on our communities. We can address the impacts of climate change and create tens of thousands of family wage jobs if we invest in rebuilding our state’s infrastructure – e.g., investing in water projects that increase water storage and protect against floods and storm water run-off. These types of investments protect us against quicker glacial melts and droughts.

By placing a cap on carbon emissions and investing fees from carbon in alternative and renewable energy sources we can address both inequality and climate change at the same time. We can create tens of thousands of new jobs in the energy efficiency industry if we take to scale retrofitting public, commercial and residential buildings.

The spirit, productivity and skill level of workers in our state are what built our strong communities, and they are what will build a new prosperous economy. As long as we share the prosperity that workers create, we will all do better.

Labor Day is a great day for that last summer barbecue, but it is also a great day to think about how we create a stronger economy and stronger communities.

We will only succeed in lifting up our families and communities if we stand together, or in Ralph Chaplin’s words, have “Solidarity Forever.”

Jeff Johnson is president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.