Bobby Kasper: This Labor Day, let’s commit to a Raising Wages agenda

Bobby Kasper

Bobby Kasper

Whether you celebrate with a backyard barbecue, a trip to the cabin or by marching alongside fellow union members at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, Labor Day is our opportunity to celebrate the everyday heroes who make our country great.

American workers are the backbone of our economy, and hard work is deeply embedded into the fabric of our society. Our productivity as a workforce has increased 64 percent since 1979. It’s a big reason the U.S. economy, despite its ups and downs, remains a model for countries around the world. On a level playing field, American workers can compete with anyone.

Just as there’s no shame in working hard, there’s also no shame in demanding fair compensation for our labor. That’s why I’m excited that St. Paul is one of 13 communities targeted by the AFL-CIO’s Raising Wages campaign. Because despite our steady gains in productivity since 1979, American workers’ hourly wages have increased by just 8.8 percent.

The reasons why our wages aren’t going up are well documented. The share of workers who belong to unions is trending downward. CEOs and the richest 1 percent of Americans are capturing a larger share of profits. Free trade agreements like NAFTA shipped middle-class manufacturing jobs overseas. The bottom line? Between 2000 and 2013, income for the typical U.S. household fell from $64,800 to about $58,448.

In Minnesota our economy is continuing its recovery from the Great Recession. We’ve seen job growth, but much of it is happening in sectors of the economy that traditionally offer low pay and few benefits – service jobs, long-term care and retail, for example. Despite our lower unemployment rate, negative corporate trends are hurting workers. To combat those trends, the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation is teaming up with our community partners – faith communities, nonprofit agencies, immigrant groups and others – to launch a new campaign: St. Paul Works.

St. Paul Works is our response to the AFL-CIO’s call to make Raising Wages a priority, to build an economy based on shared prosperity that lifts families up and strengthens our nation. We’ll focus on local elections in the City of St. Paul this fall, and we will hold our elected officials accountable for passing laws that empower working people to not just survive, but thrive.

Our campaign has four policy priorities: guaranteeing workers access to earned sick and safe time, ensuring fair scheduling practices, boosting enforcement efforts targeting wage theft and raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour.

It’s true that as union members, most of us already realize most of these benefits. But as a labor movement, we can’t afford merely to cling to what we have. We must broaden our horizons in order to grow. We must reach out into our communities and partner with organizations that share our commitment to economic justice.

The St. Paul RLF will lead the St. Paul Works campaign, bringing together union leaders and our community partners to build power for working people in St. Paul. We will plan the campaign work. We will build political support for our policy objectives. And we will build support for a $15 minimum wage. We need to organize small business owners, engage with our affiliate unions and prepare our response to the opposition – which will be fierce. And we need to align our campaign with statewide efforts and campaigns in other cities.

On Labor Day, let’s refocus on doing what is best for our families, our communities, our state and our nation. Working people everywhere are standing up and speaking out for fundamental, lasting change, regardless of whether they work in manufacturing, engineering, service or retail. Every day, they work hard and sacrifice to make our country stronger. This Labor Day should be a celebration of working families, because we are ready to speak up together, change the rules and bring lasting economic balance so every family can pursue the American Dream and work for a better life. That’s what St. Paul Works is all about.

– Bobby Kasper is president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

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