10/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Message for Labor Day

On Labor Day 2009, we honor the tremendous contributions and sacrifices of workers who built this great nation. We must never forget that workers organized, marched, went on strike, and even gave their lives in the struggles that resulted in the 40-hour workweek, safe working conditions, secure retirement benefits and the right to a voice on the job. Workers are the bedrock of this economy and we have been at the heart of every movement for social justice and civil rights in our country.

This is the first Labor Day in decades that we celebrate without the voice and leadership of our beloved friend Sen. Ted Kennedy. On every issue that we care about, Senator Kennedy was at the forefront. From civil rights to health care, from education to national security, right to the end, Ted was our strongest advocate. On this Labor Day, we mourn the passing of a giant -- the Lion of the Senate.

America's working families face significant challenges today: the worst economy in decades, the health care crisis, massive job layoffs, and dwindling wages as living expenses rise. A new AFL-CIO study shows that young workers are less likely to have health care insurance or economic security than those 10 years ago, and one-third still live in their parents' home.

The cost of health care coverage has skyrocketed. It threatens the economic security of working families... strains state and federal budgets... and reduces the competitiveness of American businesses, especially those that compete in the global market. Shamefully, more than 46 million people have no coverage at all. Those fortunate enough to have coverage too often find it's inadequate. It's not surprising, then, that medical expenses are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy and one of the main reasons families lose their homes in foreclosures.

Reining in health care expenses will help get our economy back on track, and we must all take part in the battle for reform. We must also do everything we can to help workers gain a voice in the workplace. By exercising our power at the bargaining table, unions were integral to expanding the middle class. Today, too many workers lack the power that we have. As activists and organizers, it is our duty to stand up for those workers who do not have a voice as passionately as we stand up for the members of our union.

None of these challenges are insurmountable if we, as union members, as hard working Americans, come together -- work together -- to find solutions. The labor movement has done so in every decade, and today, we can do no less. We must be driven by what we've achieved in the past to move forward and build a stronger, more equitable nation. As the late journalist Murray Kempton said, "The union is not for yourself but for your children.... It does not arise to avenge the past but to claim the future."

At our heart, that's what we have always been about: the future. In fact, our optimism has been the reason for our success; it has inspired us to create what did not exist. The best way to remember Senator Kennedy, to honor America's workers and to ensure a bright future for working families is to continue the work we've done so valiantly.

So this Labor Day, let's recommit ourselves to helping other workers organize and fight for their rights. Let's work together to win meaningful reforms that ensure access to quality, affordable health care. Let's stand together for a better economy with good jobs and the right to join a union without intimidation. Let's dedicate ourselves to creating an America that lives up to its core values and its boldest promises for all of us.