The Fight of Our Lives

09/03/2006 03:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For those of you fortunate enough to have a long Labor Day weekend, go to your barbecues, your sales at the mall and enjoy yourself. But do me a favor - take a few minutes to think about why you get a Labor Day holiday and reflect on everything George Bush and his Republican Congress have done to eliminate the gains of organized labor and working people. Organized labor, after all, is responsible for weekends - and the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, minimum wage and, yes, creating the American middle class.

We must honor working people every day, not just one day a year. They are our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, grandparents and great-grandparents. We should retell their stories regularly and remind our ourselves that if it weren't for unions, many of the things we take for granted today wouldn't even exist.

Spend some time this weekend thinking about your situation, your future and the future of your children. A recent survey by the Change to Win federation of unions, which the Teamsters helped form last year, shows that the majority of working families believe their children will be worse off economically and that they are falling farther behind. A Pew Research Center survey emphasizes many of the findings, showing that workers in the country are worse off today then they were a generation ago. And it's little wonder.

• Workers' wages are stagnant. While cash compensation for the highest-paid U.S. executives climbed 41 percent last year, 80 percent of working families saw a drop in real wages.
• Real median household incomes rose only 1.1 percent between 2004 and 2005, the Census Bureau reports - but that's only because more family members are working more jobs; inflation rose nearly 3.5 percent.
• The minimum wage has not been increased in nine years. After adjusting for inflation, the value of the minimum wage is at its lowest level since 1955. But Congress has voted itself a raise seven straight times.
• $3-a-gallon gasoline is now commonplace and what little dip we've seen in the last week will certainly reappear after the November elections.
• America has lost 3 million manufacturing jobs and gained low-skilled, low-paying service jobs.

It's an outrage that the Bush administration tells us that we can make our lives better in an ownership society. Sure, that's fine for those who can afford to own a house or save a little money. But there are simply too many Americans today who own too little. They cannot afford to save. They live paycheck to paycheck. They are worried about just making ends meet. Saving money - for a child's college education, for a home of their own, or a secure retirement - is a fantasy.

In fact, the only people who's wages are growing are the rich and union members. A union contract provides wage, health care and retirement security protections that are being eliminated in nonunion workplaces across the nation.

After almost six years of the Bush administration and five years of his Republican-controlled Congress, it's obvious that our government has been bought and paid for by Big Business. We cannot rely on our government to look out for workers in this country:

• In July, the Bush administration sought to cut some $35.6 billion in Medicare over the next five years and prepared to slash payments to hospital doctors who care for Medicare patients.
• The Bush Administration's Committee on Foreign Investment approved in February the sale of terminal operations to Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates, at six of the largest ports in the United States, despite potential national security risks and the fact that the sell-off of the nation's infrastructure to foreign-owned companies will only weaken our nation. Bush threatened to veto legislation blocking the sale.
• Over the past several years, the Bush administration has pushed through so-called free trade agreements that send American jobs overseas without requiring our trading partners to guarantee worker rights or environmental protections. When he took office, the U.S. had free-trade agreements with Mexico, Canada and Israel. Today you can add all of Central America, Jordan, Oman and Bahrain to the list. Bush has another dozen in the works with countries that can't afford to buy American products but will undercut our products with cheap exports to the U.S.
• This president, who says he is so concerned about terrorism and homeland security stripped civil service and collective bargaining rights from 170,000 Homeland Security Department workers, denied collective bargaining rights to newly federalized airport security screeners and revoked union representation for hundreds of workers in five Department of Justice divisions.
• The Bush administration in 2004 downplays an increase in coal mining fatalities and withdraws safety rules. Two years later, 16 minors die in the Sago Mine tragedy in West Virginia.
• In 2003, Bush proposed a rule to end overtime pay for millions of workers, while signing a bankruptcy bill that makes it harder for Americans to get out from under oppressive debt.
• In 2001, the administration proposed taking $11 billion from children's health insurance as part of his economic stimulus package.
• That same year the Bush administration rescinded strict reporting requirements for union-busting consultants and attorneys.

And the recent anniversary is a vivid reminder of the bungling of Hurricane Katrina.

Teamsters and other union members were there in the ninth ward, moving in equipment, feeding the poor and hungry left behind, days before FEMA arrived.

In fact, a common refrain from the gulf coast following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was that members "didn't hear from the government, didn't hear from my employer - but my union was there for me from day one."

No, we can't rely on this government to change our lives or to help us through difficult times. We have to rely on each other, our unions. Think about that.