Labor, unions — September 2, 2013 at 8:57 am

This Labor Day, say thank you to America’s working-class heroes


They keep our country going strong. But many don’t earn nearly enough. The least we can do is show our appreciation.

While many of us are enjoying a last blast of summer at barbecues, parades or festivals, others will be working on Labor Day.

Firefighters, police officers and nurses will be on duty. Teachers will be preparing lesson plans for the school year that’s about to start. Still others will be behind cash registers or fast-food counters, while businesses and consumers reap the rewards of super sales.

There’s nothing wrong with an extra day off. In fact, the day’s parades celebrate the working class. We wouldn’t have this day, or even weekends off, if it wasn’t for labor unions and activists who fought to end the abuses of business owners and managers who demanded far too many hours of work for far too little pay. If you have the day off, celebrate it — and thank the people who helped make that possible.

Take a moment to consider all the people who serve us, in countless ways, usually for far too little pay. I don’t think firefighters, police officers, emergency medical responders or nurses make nearly enough for the work they do every day, protecting our communities, saving lives and giving comfort in a time of need.

Teachers don’t make anything close to what they’re worth, given that they have a large share of the responsibility for shaping the lives of children — the future of our world. If you think $50,000 a year is too much to pay a teacher, remember that they don’t just work during the school day or even the school year. They’re grading papers and creating lesson plans at night and on weekends, taking continuing education courses in the summer and, as school systems in Michigan and elsewhere struggle economically, even buying supplies for their classrooms out of their own pockets.

People who work in retail and serve us food don’t make enough. I don’t accept the argument that these are meant to be entry-level, temporary jobs. For many hard-working Americans, that’s no longer the case. Many people in their 30s and 40s now have to work these jobs — often along with one or two others — just to feed their families. Forget saving money or buying health insurance.

Of course, let’s remember the men and women who toil in the plants that build our cars and other necessities of daily life we often take for granted. I’ve never had to work one of those jobs, but I’ve spent weeks in foundries and automotive plants telling those people’s stories. I couldn’t take the heat of the foundry for a few hours, yet the man I interviewed there endured it all day every day, cheerfully. After a week in an auto plant, I was hoarse from trying to be heard over the noise. My back ached from standing on cement floors, and I wasn’t risking the kind of permanent injuries you can get from working on the line day in and day out.

I know how lucky I’ve been. My first job out of college was at an ad agency earning $15,000 a year, and I was thrilled for the opportunity. That was more than 20 years ago, and even then my parents said I wasn’t being paid enough.

Now consider that many people working in fast-food or retail jobs make just $15,000 a year, two decades later. They’re not carefree 20-somethings. They’re people with families and it’s not enough. Maybe they don’t have the education or the opportunity to get a better job, but it’s just not enough to live on.

We’ve come a long way since the days when sweatshops were the norm in America. But it’s not far enough — and we’re sliding backward thanks to corporate greed and legislation like Right to Work (For Less). We still have work to do.

Even the highest-paid CEO can’t ultimately succeed if not for the efforts of his or her employees. I have nothing against hard-working people striking it rich. The chance to achieve that is part of the American Dream. But if it happens by treading on the backs of those who do the actual labor, that’s an unsustainable vision for our future.

So, by all means, enjoy the day off and relax a bit. But don’t forget the people who are working on the holiday, or those who will be returning to grueling jobs on Tuesday. Tip your server a little extra or take a moment to thank a nurse or a teacher for all they do.

And always remember: Our country is stronger when everyone — not just a few — have the opportunity to succeed.

[Photo by Cherie A. Thurlby]