As Work Changes, Labor Unions Have Big Role to Play

Labor unions created Labor Day, now in its 125th year as a federal holiday, to celebrate the contribution that workers make to our country. Often at great risk, union members have joined together and laid their lives on the line to fight for justice and dignity in the workplace.

Look how far American workers have come. When Labor Day started, the typical worker toiled 12 hours a day, often seven days a week. Children as young as 5 years old worked in mines, mills and fields. Health insurance, pensions, Social Security, Medicare, paid vacation, paid sick leave, a vital K-12 public school system and job protections for people with disabilities were glints in the eyes of our movement’s pioneers. Workers marched, struck and organized to force our nation to address these and other worker needs, to the point where they are widely accepted as the floor in a modern society.

On this Labor Day, workers in Texas know powerful interests still seek to halt and even undo the progress we have made. We find ourselves on shifting ground, our fair shot at reaching the middle class threatened everywhere we turn. Consider: 

  • The $7.25 Texas and federal wage floor once was never really enough to survive on, but now stands at less than half of what is commonly considered a living wage. Texas has refused to act or let cities act to address poverty wages or substandard working conditions. As low-wage workers fighting and sometimes striking for raises at companies that earn billions of dollars in profits are saying: One job should be enough!

  • Texas commands few employments benefits. We live in the only state where Workers’ Compensation is not mandatory. Only about three of 10 Texans who are out of work through no fault of their own receive Unemployment Insurance benefits. If you do not have a union or other employment contract – and most Texans don’t – you can be dismissed for virtually any reason or no reason. When some local governments enacted ordinances allowing workers to earn paid sick leave benefits, the state joined big corporations in conspiring to deprive hundreds of thousands of workers of this critical benefit. To address these circumstances and poverty wages, your vote is your voice.

  • Existential threats to employment are on the rise. More corporations are substituting gig work for traditional employment, in the process withholding employment benefits like Social Security and Medicare contributions, overtime pay, paid vacation and retirement savings accounts. The Texas Workforce Commission has been their secret ally in accomplishing these goals. Artificial intelligence and robots are expected to replace tens of millions of jobs in the decades ahead, and it is unclear whether workers will have a voice in that process. Young working people face gnawing uncertainty about how they will earn a living.

Nothing in the workplace is guaranteed, but history shows us that the best way to higher wages, better benefits and safer conditions is to stand together with the people you work with. Poll after poll shows workers, especially younger workers, understand that speaking up together works. In Texas, this generational change is showing up in actions, large and small, all over our state, from “traditional” union industries like construction to newly organized workers in the retail and high-tech industries. Workers are coming together as never before to seek better lives.

No workplace benefit worth having arrived without a demand. Unions empower workers to speak up together and take long runs at the goals they choose, whether they are higher pay and benefits, job security or even social justice. I know the people of Texas. Texas is not an anti-union state, but it is an unorganized state. As ground crumbles beneath the feet of working people doing everything in their power to get by, let us remind ourselves that labor unions – again – have a growing role to play in building a better future for working families. Join us.


Rick Levy is President of the Texas AFL-CIO, a state labor federation consisting of 240,000 affiliated union members who advocate for working families in Texas.