On July Fourth, we here in Washington actually got to appreciate a little bit of summer … finally. August delivered some hot weather that our friends back East would have easily claimed as a respite from their humidity and heat. Now we have this great weather, with the air cooling off and beautiful blue skies. And before you know it, the kids will be back in school and we all will have our noses to the grindstone. That’s what Labor Day marks — the end of summer, with a bow to workers, which means a tribute to almost all of us.
Labor Day marks what we hold in common, not apart from each other. It is a celebration of America, not of our need to work, but of our shared value of work. Work is a complex thing — we complain about the daily zigs and zags of work — the sometimes long hours, the sometimes lousy pay, the inflexibility which confronts millions of American workers with no sick leave and little paid vacation, the occasional bad boss, the tasks of work itself.
On the other hand, work is how we define ourselves. It creates value, especially as we are among the most productive workers in the world. It enables a certain self-esteem among ourselves as workers, even as we put up with the indignities of employment. And sometimes we join together to overcome some of these indignities so that we can work with pride, confidence, and not against each other, but with each other. That is called a union.
We celebrate Labor Day as workers, together. In Washington state, 3.2 million of us work, with another 300,000 workers unemployed and looking. We are office workers, computer geeks, farm workers, day laborers, bank tellers, baristas, bus drivers, construction workers, nurses, doctors, firefighters, teachers, police, sanitation workers, loggers, and waiters. Workers include the bosses and managers as well as the line workers. We all earn a pay check. We don’t wait around for a dividend for our daily bread. We work for it.
Some of us make a lot of money and some of us don’t. But even the least paid in our state get a lot more respect and compensation than in other states. That’s because we have the best minimum wage in the country, at $9.04 an hour. That wage is thanks to the political work of the Washington State Labor Council and a resounding vote of support from the people … back in 1998.
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We respect work. It is the American ethic. Part of respecting work and workers is the right not to go to work when you are sick or your kid is sick and needs some TLC. But that part of the rights and responsibility of work is forgotten for millions of American workers. We don’t have a federal law that guarantees a certain number of sick days. As a result, many workers go to work sick. They have no other choice.
Last year a coalition of unions and community organizations persuaded the city of Seattle to put a dent in that one indecency of employment law. So starting this Saturday, Sept. 1, nearly all workers in Seattle will begin to accrue sick leave, depending on how many months they have worked for their employer. The idea is that you earn it, and then you can take it when you are sick. That little change in the law gives some peace of mind to 140,000 primarily low wage workers. Now they know that when they get sick, they will be able to take care of themselves without losing their jobs or a day’s pay. That makes for a pretty good celebration of Labor Day. Or at least it is a good start.
My dad always taught me to respect workers, no matter their station in life and the different manual, technical, mechanical, and thinking aspects of the tasks they were paid to undertake. The thing is, when you demean workers, you are demeaning yourself as a worker. When we respect workers in the daily interactions of life, we are respecting ourselves. We celebrate Labor Day because we are all in this world of work together. Let’s enjoy the fruits of our labor and the solidarity of workers, the work we do, and the nation and economy we and our parents and their parents have built. Happy Labor Day!
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