Commentary: Let’s make this Labor Day a call to action for working Alaskans

"The Wealth of the Nation" by Seymour Fogel. Image courtesy of Voice of America
“The Wealth of the Nation” by Seymour Fogel. Image courtesy of Voice of America

By Joelle Hall
For The Cordova Times

Labor Day is an opportunity to reflect on what working people have achieved over the decades, and also a prod to spur our modern fight for economic justice and a strong middle class.

In past decades, working people — people just like us — used collective action, dedicated organizing and unionism to win the weekend, to end child labor, to achieve the 40-hour work week, safer workplaces, and important steps toward equality on the job.

We have built a strong middle class in our state. In the early days of statehood and during the pipeline years, workers in unions provided a balancing force in the economy. During the Great Prosperity — in the 1960s and 1970s — unions and collective bargaining helped propel thousands of working families into the middle-class, which provided a solid foundation for our young state.

In recent years, corporate special interest attacks on labor law have systematically upended that delicate balance. For the many of us with two or even three jobs, the 40-hour week is long gone. The ideal of two days off each week is a fantasy. It is much harder today for any of us to exercise our Constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly to organize and form unions on the job. CEO pay continues to grow at a dizzying rate. Pay for the rest of us generally stays flat.

The result? An ever-widening inequality gap with more and more Alaskans thinking that the hallmarks of a middle-class life are out of reach and unachievable. Buy a house? Save for your kids’ college fund? Retire? Forget it.

An economy is not a zero-sum game. A clear and attainable path to the middle class helps all of us. A larger middle class can consume more goods and services, creating more and better jobs, thereby stoking demand. The rising tide will lift all boats.

The best way to create good-paying jobs and long-term economic opportunity for Alaskans is with collective bargaining and union activism.

This Labor Day, I’m asking Alaskans from all walks of life and backgrounds — all of us — to support the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. The PRO Act is the most significant piece of labor legislation in our lifetime. It would restore our freedom to freely and fairly organize a union in our workplaces. It would rebalance our economy and our society with a level playing field between employers and the rest of us. We’ll use our freedoms to create new pathways to the middle class.

The PRO Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support, including from Rep. Don Young, and is set to come to the floor of the U.S. Senate later this year.

A recent poll by Hart Research Associates found that 72 percent of Alaskans support the PRO Act. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan should join Rep. Young, and make the PRO Act the law of the land.

Unionism is truly and deeply an exercise of Alaska’s values. It’s beautiful, and it works.

Joelle Hall is the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the state’s largest coalition of labor unions. She lives in Peters Creek.