While many of my colleagues wear a special pin indicating they’re a Member of Congress, I wear something different on my lapel: a pin depicting a canary in cage.
Generations ago, miners took a canary into the mine to warn them of toxic gases. If the canary died, the miners knew they had to escape quickly. They were forced to provide for their own protection because there was no union strong enough or government who cared enough to protect them.
Wearing this pin reminds me why honoring our workers matter. The pin symbolizes more than the progress our nation has made over the past century in protecting the safety, health, and well-being of all workers.
This week, we observe Workers’ Memorial Day, when we pause and remember those who have lost their lives while on the job.
For generations, hardworking men and women have left their homes to earn an honest living, to provide for loved ones, and to ensure there was always food on the table. For generations, too many would never return home from work.
They died on the job – manning heavy machinery, working in dark coal mines, or building our roads and bridges. They died from lack of basic fire safety, ventilation systems, and lighting.
Workers’ Memorial Day should also serve as a reminder that we must stay vigilant when it comes to workers’ rights.
We’re seeing ripples of change in today’s workforce as more and more workers move to form a collective voice. Workers across the country and in different industries and occupations are coming together to draw attention to workers rights: fair wages, benefits, and workplace standards.
The Northwestern football team recently won the right to hold a union election, allowing college athletes to have a voice. The players held votes last week, and while the results have not been released yet, these players dedicate the same hours to their sport as fulltime employees and deserve the same protections as any other worker. When I met with students, not one mentioned wages. But they do want protections if they get injured and time to devote to their studies.
JetBlue pilots also recently voted to unionize, with more than 70 percent of the airline’s eligible pilots voting to join the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). This comes after the pilots voted against unionization twice before, so it’s clear that attitudes are changing.
As Captain Lee Moak, ALPA’s president said, “If you're not at the table, you're probably on the menu.”
Workers deserve a seat at the table, no matter the job or venue.
Walter Reuther was one of the key leaders of the United Auto Workers, and he led actions like the famous sit-down strikes to unionize the Ford Motor Complex in Dearborn, MI. He is credited for negotiating innovative contracts and health and pension benefits, as well as fighting for civil rights programs and War on Poverty.
Reuther said, “Labor is not fighting for a larger slice of the national pie – labor is fighting for a larger pie.”
Our country is only as prosperous as our middle class is strong. For generations, the labor movement has fought for prosperity by aiming to strengthen our workforce – as a whole.
American workers fought for a decent wage and retirement security. We follow a five-day work week and regulated working hours. Working mothers and fathers, teachers, nurses, and police officers receive health care and life insurance because of strong labor protections.
We’ve come a long way since miners carried canaries down into the mines for safety. But unions remain a critical catalyst for many of the worker safety protections that we sometimes take for granted today. It is a fundamental right that workers be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.