Thank you. To all of you who work, who have worked, or who look every day for work, thank you. Our country, and the dream generations have built their lives and their hopes for their children upon, exist because of your labor and the labor of your parents and their parents before them.
Over time, Labor Day has become part of an extended weekend, a well-deserved respite from the daily grind, a chance to spend time with family and friends and to mark the end of another summer. For educators it often signals the start of another school year, and for all of us in the labor movement, it’s an opportunity to reflect on and honor the work we have done collectively to create opportunity, security and fulfillment.
But this Labor Day falls under the shadow of deep and broad joblessness, the effects of the worst recession since the Great Depression, insecurity about the future and, sadly, attacks upon the very workers whose labor we honor on this day.
The economic crisis was not caused by these people, who every day work hard and play by the rules. The tragic irony is that those who did cause it—the people who presided over the unchecked greed on Wall Street and the recklessness in the housing market—have recovered, while ordinary workers and their families are struggling to survive. Adding insult to injury, as many of you have witnessed in the last eight months, ideologues have made an art of giving short shrift to the workers who protect us; teach our children; care for our sick; and work the day shift, the night shift or the all-around-the-clock shift when—as happened last weekend—Mother Nature threatens. To these ideologues, teachers, police officers, firefighters, janitors and other public employees are convenient fall guys for their own greed, selfishness and irresponsibility.
We’ve heard plenty about America’s budget deficit, but not nearly enough about our jobs deficit and how our leaders plan to put our people back to work. If allowed to continue, our deficit of jobs will become a deficit of hope. Americans are determined to get back to work, and we can’t allow a dysfunctional political system to threaten the American dream. At its core, America’s trajectory—both as an economic powerhouse and as a great democracy—has been driven by our investment in human capital, most notably through education.
The AFT occupies a unique position at the nexus between public education as the equalizer of individual opportunity, and the labor movement as the leading advocate for economic dignity. We know that a strong public education system is central to achieving individual goals and restoring our nation’s economic strength.
Good jobs this century and beyond require an unprecedented level of education and training. The industrial model of education marked by rote memorization will no longer suffice. To flourish and succeed in the knowledge economy, our public schools must provide students the breadth and depth of knowledge they need to become critical and creative thinkers, problem solvers and inventors. And America’s universities and community colleges need support to provide relevant, high-quality preparation, training and retraining for those entering and re-entering today’s workforce.
None of this will be easy, and educators cannot do it alone. School budgets are being slashed at the very same time public schools are responding to two enormous challenges—the need to adapt to meet the requirements of the knowledge economy, and the need to respond to the devastating effects of alarming levels of family and child poverty.
The AFT will continue to fight for educational opportunity for all our children, and for economic respect for our members and all Americans who want decent jobs, fairness and a voice in the workplace, and a reinvigorated democracy. We will continue our work to forge new bonds—and strengthen long-standing ones—between labor and community. Because only together will we be able to chart a course where America believes and acts as if its best days are ahead of us, not behind us.
I’ve spent the last two weeks crisscrossing the country, visiting with members and seeing how they make a difference in the midst of these tough economic times. As they show so powerfully, it is precisely during tough times that Americans must put aside our differences and work to heal our economic wounds and strengthen our country.
America’s unions are the product of tough times, and they are built for tough times. From the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 100 years ago to the demonstration of democracy in action throughout Wisconsin this year, ours is a proud history of grace, grit, perseverance and progress. The fight for economic dignity, collective voice and a check against unfettered power is as important today as ever before.
Challenges to our movement and our work abound. We may not prevail every time, but we will never prevail if we don’t take a stand. This Labor Day is a reminder of the values and aspirations we are fighting for, and I thank you for all that you do. Let us recommit ourselves to the fundamental premise that all Americans deserve economic dignity and security, and that we will not rest until we have achieved it.
P.S. Follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/rweingarten!