08/31/2013 08:24 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2013

This Labor Day, Put Down the Ribs and Stand Up With Workers

Ah...Labor Day -- one last chance before the back-to-school crush to lounge by the pool, throw a burger on the grill and take our minds off work.

Not usually a day people spend contemplating the contributions of workers to America.

Maybe it's better that way. If most of us really stopped to think about the state of workers in America on Labor Day, we would be in no mood to celebrate.

For millions of workers, ground down by the daily grind, work takes more than it gives. One in four workers toils at wages too low to lift their families from poverty. Forty million get no paid leave. The share of workers with job-based health and retirement benefits declined 12.9 and 7.0 percentage points, respectively, between 1979 and 2010, while wage growth for the bottom 60 percent resulted roughly as much from increased hours as from higher pay.

Workers have had more than enough of far too little for way too long. That's why, across America, in cities large and small and states of every hue, workers are demanding the most basic workplace bargain -- the right to economic opportunity and security through their labor.

Fast food workers are striking for decent wages and the freedom to form unions without intimidation; thousands turned out in 50 cities last week. Warehouse workers, the human conveyor belt engaged by logistics companies to process goods for Walmart and other retail giants, are walking off the job and onto the legal battlefield to challenge egregious wages and working conditions.

Employees of federal contractors, tired of relying on public aid to subsidize the low wages profitable public contractors pay, are demanding the federal government stop promoting poverty work and take steps to ensure tax dollars create living wage jobs. Carwash employees are organizing and striking on the east and west coasts.

Port truck drivers, denied decent wages and benefits through wrongful misclassification as independent contractors and retaliated against for trying to unionize, are striking in Los Angeles and Long Beach. And former Walmart employees, fired after protesting low wages, limited hours and retaliation, are shining a spotlight on the costs too many workers pay for the company's everyday low prices.

In the face of this mountain of bad news, the low-wage workers' new demands on their bosses are even more remarkable. Today's strikes and civil disobedience are courageous, concerted acts by hardworking women and men who have both everything and nothing to lose. By risking their jobs, they are putting it all on the line for themselves and their families -- but also for all American workers. We should be cheering them on -- and calling on big corporations like McDonald's and Walmart to pay workers more.

The federal government must act, too. Raising and indexing the minimum wage to inflation, requiring government contractors to pay living wages, extending federal wage rights to home care workers and actually enforcing existing wage laws would strengthen workers' hand in this out-of-balance economy. Maintaining federal unemployment benefits and strengthening reemployment services would ease hardship and improve job prospects for the long-term unemployed. Removing employment barriers, like excluding unemployed jobseekers or those with criminal records, would enlarge applicant pools and improve job opportunities for millions. And investing to meet America's needs -- restoring infrastructure, educating children, caring for seniors -- would advance national priorities and create good jobs.

I've heard some say there is little chance the plight of workers will change. But if enough Americans speak up, these changes seem far less difficult to achieve than the civil rights milestones we have celebrated this week.

If workers keep standing up like they are this week, it might even give us something to celebrate next Labor Day.