Labor Day is meant to celebrate the accomplishments of the American worker, who spends most days on an oil rig or in an office, on the assembly line or on the docks, making the American economy run. The holiday originated in 1894, after two dozen people were killed during the Pullman Strike, a railway workers’ boycott of low wages and high rent. From there, it became an American tradition, meant to honor the accomplishments of the people who make this nation run.
In observance of the holiday, ThinkProgress will be taking the day off. But while we will be celebrating the many accomplishments of laborers in this nation and around the world, we’ll also remember that the battle is not yet won. Unions are on the decline, while income inequality is on the rise. Women still aren’t earning what men make. And many employees still aren’t free from discrimination at their jobs.
Here are just eleven of the fights we’re still fighting for the American worker:
1. Paid sick leave
A full 40 percent of private sector workers and 80 percent of low-income workers do not receive paid sick days at all, which holds back workers from taking the time to take care of themselves, a child, or loved one. A number of studies show how paid sick leave is a net benefit to both employers and employees, providing job growth and income security without any drag on the economy. While several major cities have required paid sick time, federal legislation has not yet passed Congress.
2. A living wage
The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for four years, even as cost of living rises. Even full-time minimum wage workers can’t afford rent in any state in the union. If the minimum wage is raised to $9, as President Obama has called for, millions of workers would be lifted out of poverty, while household spending would grow by $48 billion, providing a much-needed boost to the economy. On Thursday, fast food workers staged walk-outs and strikes in 50 cities demanding a living wage. To keep wages consistent with inflation from where they stood in the 1960s, minimum wage would be about $10 an hour.
3. A safe workplace
Coal miners have suffered a recent surge in black lung disease. But a proposed U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administrationrule meant to address it has been stalled for three years, thanks to Republicans in Congress and repeated delays by MSHA and the Department of Labor. Moreover, too many miners, plant employees, and domestic workers lack safe workplaces and adequate protection and with sequestration cutting workplace safety spending, increased funding and additional regulations are needed to keep Americans out of toxic workplaces.
4. Employment protection for LGBT workers
For all the strides that LGBT equality has made in the last few years, there’s a shocking omission when it comes to the workplace: In 29 states in the US, it’s legal to fire someone for being gay or lesbian. In 34, you can be fired for being transgender. There’s a piece of legislation that would fix this: The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been proposed several times, but Congress has repeatedly failed to pass it into law. The Senate is expected to vote on ENDA again, and it’s already enjoyed bipartisan support in Senate committee. It’s highly unlikely, though, that ENDA could pass through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives this congressional term.
5. Full rights for domestic work
Thanks to a labor law loophole known as the “companionship exemption,” home care workers — who swap out patients’ bed pans, tend to wounds, and help the disabled and elderly carry out basic functions of day-to-day life — aren’t guaranteed minimum wage or overtime pay. Full-time home health aides only earn $9.70 per hour on average, or $20,000 per year. President Obama introduced a change that would give domestic workers full rights in December of 2011, but the comment period was delayed twice and one group says it is stuck down the regulatory ‘rabbit hole.’” In the meantime, the majority of home care workers earn poverty-level wages and make so little that nearly 40 percent rely on public benefits to survive.
6. Restored anti-discrimination laws
The Supreme Court handed a huge victory to bosses who engage in sexual or racial harassment last June. On the same day, the justices also left many victims of workplace retaliation powerless against their employers. They drastically weakened older workers’ right to be free from age discrimination and permitted employers to force their workers to sign away their legal rights under pain of termination. Congress can enact legislation that overrules every one of these decisions, both to restore workers’ rights and to infuse some much-needed humility into five increasingly partisan justices.
7. Humane treatment for agricultural workers
Migrant farm laborers, some of whom are legal residents, must endure punishing work conditions like pesticide exposure and unpaid hours. They are also denied basic work protections, are often at the mercy of their employers, and are among the poorest of the working class. While courts in California and New Mexico have only begun to mandate equal protection and employer penalties, more needs to be done for the agricultural workers living in other states.
8. More protections for unpaid interns
Unpaid interns aren’t considered employees, which makes them ineligible for basic protections in the workplace. They aren’t protected against sexual harassment, are highly vulnerable to exploitation and disadvantage lower-income students who need a paying job to make ends meet. Fortunately, though, the tide seems to be turning. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) has proposed awarding grants to low-income students with unpaid internships, essentially turning them into work-study opportunities. A court also recently ruled that Fox Searchlight violated minimum wage and overtime laws by failing to compensate its interns. Former unpaid interns elsewhere are filing similar lawsuits to demand justice.
9. Sustainable employment
Workers need jobs, and the steps needed to address climate change can help. Clean energy investment isn’t just popular, it leads to three times more jobs — and more American jobs — than fossil fuels. These green jobs produce efficiency upgrades, renewable energy products, and drive public transportation. Many are accessible to people without a college degree. Indeed, cutting carbon pollution can lead to more manufacturing jobs. Take the success of California as an example the U.S. could institute a National Clean Energy Standard, which would create 300,000 jobs along with $260 billion in new investment.
10. Labor rights for college athletes
The debate over whether college athletes should be compensated for playing sports rages on, particularly as they continue to have little voice in the NCAA system. Athletes are fighting now over the use of their likenesses to earn big money for schools, the NCAA, and private companies, and even some schools are pushing to extend more benefits to their players. The debate runs deeper than compensation, though. States like California have moved to provide more scholarship and health care protections to players who get hurt on the field to ensure that they’ll have a chance to continue their education even without sports, and in Congress and state legislatures, lawmakers are attempting to protect athletes from the dangers of sports injuries like concussions in ways that the NCAA, which was formed to protect college athletes, will not.
11. Time to spend with your newborn
The United States is one of the only developed nations in the world that doesn’t require employers to provide paid maternity leave — not to mention leave for new fathers, which only 50 developed countries offer. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employers are required to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to expecting mothers, but a lot of people are excluded from that requirement. A March 2011 study found that only 11 percent of private sector workers, and 17 percent of the public sector, gets any paid leave. But there’s good reason to think we should be offering better benefits to our new parents. Studies indicate that paid parental leave is good for workplace retention and increases worker morale. And it’s good for companies, too, since they save money on training and start-up costs for new employees when new parents are forced to choose between losing their jobs or leaving their kids.