Labor Day Investing

10/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today in Cincinnati, Ohio, President Obama will participate in the AFL-CIO's Labor Day Picnic event. It is encouraging that we now have a chief executive who recognizes that Labor Day is about employees and their future. But let's take stock before we get too excited.

While most Americans associate Labor Day with the end of summer and an extended weekend for spending with family and friends, it is important to acknowledge that Labor Day is a significant day for working people and the American labor movement.

Labor Day is a celebration of employees' rights that is synonymous with the American labor movement, still the single most important institution in ensuring quality of life for America's families.

Labor Day is a reminder of what workers can achieve when they organize: improved working conditions, fairness in the work place, holiday and vacation pay, health care and pensions. At one time these benefits were commonplace in American workplaces.

So while on the one hand Labor Day serves as an important reminder of what can be achieved when workers join together, it should also on the other hand remind us that many of these achievements have been rolled back.

Over these past two decades and at an accelerated pace under the Bush Administration, the rights of employees have been challenged and in many instances legally rescinded. Whereas employers once respected the rights of employees to bargain collectively, a whole new industry of union-busting consultants and law firms have cropped up with the sole purpose to train employers on how to squeeze their workforce into giving concessions.

Today's unions have a plan for restoring an American middle class and lifting up the plight of the growing number of working poor. In spite of numerous attacks against working people and their organizations, the American labor movement has an infrastructure that stretches out to communities and states across the country.

But In order for today's unions to be effective advocates for employees they must be advocates on behalf of all workers. The general public must once again have proof that when today's unions win they win too.

That means unions must not only be advocates of collective bargaining -- as important and as central an issue that is -- but they must also be strong advocates for progressive policies around health care, housing, transportation, land use as well as giant federal budget issues like the stimulus package and the bailout of major industries.

First, the labor movement must act with a strong social vision and have the policy and economic research to back up that vision. The labor movement must become the watchdogs of all public resources and investments.

When we pass a stimulus bill who else but the American labor movement should act as effective watchdogs to ensure public resources are indeed creating jobs and that those jobs pay a living wage, have health care and guarantee the rights of workers to form unions.

When government invests in bailing out an industry, whether it is the car industry or financial markets, the labor movement must take steps to ensure those resources benefit all working people and not just high paid CEO's and their shareholders.

But the labor movement can only do that if it has strong, effective and smart organizational capacity in regions and states. It is at this level of government that these public resources are expended. The labor movement can no longer yield to the local business community on regional public policy that impacts the economic direction of our regions and communities.

In many ways, it is at the regional level where there is greater ability to craft innovative proposals that have an immediate impact on the lives of working families and their communities. And that is one place where we need to focus new energies starting this Labor Day.