Kera Peterson: A distant Labor Day this year, but our solidarity endures 

Kera Peterson is president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. Her “Labor Voices” column appeared in the September 2020 issue of The Saint Paul Union Advocate.


Kera Peterson

For many of us, Labor Day weekend marks the final days of summer, one last chance to throw a backyard barbecue or head up to the cabin before the school year begins. For the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, Labor Day has in recent years been an opportunity to bring hundreds of union members together for a parade through the State Fairgrounds. 

This year, of course, Labor Day looks a lot different. Get-togethers with loved ones are spaced six feet apart. And not only is our parade canceled, the whole State Fair has been called off. Despite the differences, Labor Day should always be about celebrating the contributions of America’s working people – especially the essential workers who have kept our country and our state going through the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The list of heroes working on the front lines during this public health crisis is long and filled with union members. Millions of America’s working people have stepped up, risking our lives and livelihoods, to continuously go to work since the onset of COVID-19. U.S. Postal Service employees are working in challenging, sometimes chaotic conditions to make sure our mail is safely delivered. Grocery store clerks are working overtime to ensure we have food to put on the table. Tradespeople are building and maintaining our infrastructure. Health care workers are adjusting to new protocols and care models to keep our communities well. Educators and public employees are working hard in conditions that continue to shift. Transit workers are getting essential workers to and from their jobs. 

COVID-19 has highlighted the vast social, economic and racial inequalities in this country, challenges we must face head on moving forward. But the pandemic is also shedding light on another crucial difference in economic and health security: the benefits of belonging in a union. According to the Economic Policy Institute, just 67% of nonunion private-sector workers had access to health care benefits in 2019, compared to 94% of union members. The union difference is real. Collective bargaining leads to benefits like paid leave, job security and wages high enough to sustain a family. 

On a more typical Labor Day, the Saint Paul RLF would bring together over 200 union members to march in the Minnesota State Fair’s parade. But not this year.

There’s never been a year where the union advantage – the power of having a voice on the job, a seat at the table – has been more clear. From National Nurses United winning victories in its fight for adequate personal protective equipment to the United Food and Commercial Workers demanding (and winning) stricter safety guidelines for grocery stores, solidarity has been fundamental in protecting America’s workers in this crisis. When working people come together, we make things better for everyone, especially in a crisis. 

But as we celebrate the working people who got us here and will keep us going, we also must take Labor Day to honor our brothers, sisters and friends who have fallen to COVID-19, especially those who became infected while on the job. No one should have to choose between risking their life or losing a paycheck. In our moments of great darkness, we must continue the fight for safe working conditions, hazard pay and paid sick leave.  

As union members, we must never take for granted the rights that empower us to bargain for safe workplaces, quality health insurance, family-sustaining wages and protections on the job. And in the face of this unprecedented pandemic, it’s important now more than ever to take this year’s holiday to uplift political candidates who share our values and fight to protect our rights.  

We’ve seen firsthand the devastation caused by political pundits who choose to put profits over people. That’s why this November, it’s crucial we get to the ballot box to elect labor-endorsed candidates for the Minnesota Legislature, for Congress and Joe Biden as the next president of the U.S.  

The labor movement has responded to COVID-19 with passion and dedication, fighting nonstop for workers’ protections. On Labor Day, we’ll pause to celebrate our essential workers and pay tribute to those we’ve lost, to cherish the rights won by union members before us and imagine what we can accomplish with an ally in the White House. And then we’ll get back to work. 

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