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Labor Day 2021: A wakeup call for working Alaskans

Labor Day is not simply just another day off. It is the celebration of a movement which has struggled throughout its existence to bring people better living conditions through hard work and determination.

Everything that we enjoy today from the weekend, to the 40-hour work week, to the guarantee of safety equipment as we perform dangerous tasks, is something unions and their organizations have won us through collective bargaining and activism. While we enjoy this weekend we should reflect on the fact that this was not always the case. There was a time in the 19th century where child labor was an American norm. Where people were being coerced into oil fields and coal mines with little in the way of safety gear. If you were injured on the job your employer had no liability. And people were often paid by the day, not the hour.

Doug Tansy, assistant business manager at the Fairbanks IBEW, reminds me that “The mortality rate of linemen during the early 20th century was nearly 50%.” That means if you worked in a linemen trade your chances of dying on the job were one in two. Now it is somewhere around one in five thousand. This is why we celebrate. Not only have unions been instrumental in saving lives, they have been responsible for propelling millions into the middle class. During the 50s and 60s which many consider to be the golden age of American capitalism, union membership was over three times what it is today. It was what protected workers as they built the Alaskan pipeline and secured the wages they used to buy homes in the state. Without these protections our communities would not be what they are today.

Now however, working people are under attack. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can funnel billions of dollars into our politics through the use of independent expenditures, and so called “right to work” laws have gutted labor organizations of necessary protections. As a result, union membership has declined, as have American standards of living. Gone are the days when the 40-hour work week was enough to support an average family. Now more and more people are working two or three jobs and spending less quality time with their children as a consequence.

At the same time, CEO pay has risen astronomically, and the stock prices of corporate assets have been wildly inflated. The rate of inequality America experiences is unlike that of any other country in history. Our GDP is at a constant increase (with perhaps the exception of 2020), and yet fewer and fewer of our fellow Americans are sharing in the benefits of this new wealth. There is a way to change this however. One that reverses the tide of corporate greed and puts power back in the hands of working people.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, otherwise known as the PRO Act, is a piece of federal legislation which would significantly restore unions’ ability to organize in the workplace. The Act was passed in the US House of Representatives with bipartisan support, including an affirmative vote by Alaska’s own Don Young. Now the act moves to the Senate, where it will be debated and discussed by Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski. According to a poll by Hart Research Associates, 72% of Alaskans support the PRO Act. If our senators were to vote in the affirmative on this bill, it would mean an easy political victory for them and an astounding financial victory for the people of Alaska.

The middle class is the backbone of the American economy. In Alaska this is no different. Better paid employees means better paying customers at our local businesses, as well as better education for our children, and better quality in our work. Labor Day is a holiday all about celebrating the successes of working people. So let us celebrate this progress by striving for a better future and supporting the modern-day efforts to improve the workplace as we know it.

Brent Nichols of Fairbanks is with the American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO).


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