Labor Day means many things to many people -- back to school, the end of summer, a needed respite from the daily grind. For working people and union members, Labor Day stands for something special and profound.
It's a day to honor the deep commitment each of us has to serve the children we teach, the families we heal and the communities we love. It's a day to reflect on the values we hold dear -- that every American should have access to a good job that can support a family, with access to affordable healthcare; that every child should be able to attend a high-quality public school in his or her neighborhood; that college should not be a luxury for the few but should be affordable for all; and that we should be able to retire with dignity after a lifetime of hard work, without worrying that we'll be a burden to our loved ones.
Working people built this country -- we did it together -- brick by brick, school by school, town by town. Through these collective efforts, we built the middle class, each generation did a little better than the one before, we advanced the ideals of equality and justice, and we expanded opportunity for all.
The work you do builds upon this foundation. Your work has value. It should be respected and honored, not just on Labor Day but every day.
So, today I say thank you. Thank you for your work, your dedication and your commitment to the people you serve -- whether you are a teacher in Cleveland, a nurse in Miami, a steelworker in Pittsburgh, a janitor in Los Angeles, a delivery driver in Nashua, N.H., or an office worker in Seattle.
I know many of us feel that the American dream we built is slipping further and further away -- poverty continues to increase, and good jobs continue to be eliminated and replaced by low-wage, no-benefit work. And a lot of that has to do with the decline of and attacks on unions. Consider this -- between 1973 and 2007, union membership in the private sector dropped from more than 34 percent to eight percent. During that time, wage inequality in the private sector increased by more than 40 percent. Meanwhile, too many politicians and elites demean and disrespect work while budget cuts and calls for austerity make it harder to provide high-quality services.
And no wonder. An unholy alliance of corporate interests and politicians -- intent on slashing budgets and then blaming working people for the harmful results, while at the same time finding ways to finance tax cuts for wealthy donors -- continue to double down on efforts to polarize and divide our nation: parent against teacher, union member against nonunion member, neighbor against neighbor.
This is our new normal.
The AFT is meeting this moment with a new vision of unionism: solution-driven unionism. It's an approach that is relevant and appropriate to the 21st century. An approach that is creative and visionary. An approach that advances solutions that unite the people we represent and those we serve -- our students, our families and our communities.
We must bring people together around agendas that serve all kids, all workers and all communities -- to restore the middle class, strengthen our public schools, and invest in, not destabilize, communities.
We must counter polarization and anger with ideas and innovation. It's what AFT members and leaders are focused on across the nation.
Because when we -- working people -- propose solutions, it's harder to demonize us, harder to cut vital services, and harder to divide us from the people we serve.
The best solutions come from you. It is your ideas that will strengthen our schools, hospitals and communities. Just as with the generations before us, it is your work and commitment that will propel economic and educational opportunity and social justice.
Our ability to advance these solutions depends on electing leaders who believe in public education as a pathway to our future; who believe that public employees and healthcare professionals provide essential services and must be treated fairly; and who believe that working people and their families are entitled to a voice in their destiny and a pathway to fairness, dignity and respect. The November elections will determine the future of our nation; this is a defining moment to stand up for our values and our vision for America.
This presidential election is a clear choice between two vastly different visions for America's future. On one hand, the Obama-Biden ticket wants to strengthen the middle class and restore prosperity for all Americans. On the other, the Romney-Ryan ticket stands for creating more wealth for those who need it least and telling the rest of America, "You're on your own."
The choice is between a president who fought to keep 300,000 teachers on the job and a Republican candidate who says he would only keep the Department of Education around to use as a club against unions.
Rather than support workers at home or investments in public schools, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan support the Bush-era tax cuts for the very wealthy. They want to hand over our schools to private corporations.
Romney supports a plan that would turn Medicare into a voucher system and would double out-of-pocket costs for seniors. And he supports efforts to strip workers of their collective bargaining rights and their voice.
We simply cannot afford to sit this election out. We cannot afford Romney's America.
I know that together, we can turn a time of frustration and uncertainty into a time of action and promise. Together, we can turn our values into reality.
Have a safe and happy Labor Day.