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AFL-CIO President: This Labor Day, Fight for Paid Leave

4 minute read
Richard Trumka is the president of the AFL-CIO.

Labor Day. For some Americans, it’s a time for friends, family and fellowship. The end of summer. The beginning of the school year. The start of the football season. An American tradition.

That’s not all. Labor Day is an important opportunity to recognize and honor the achievements of working people. It was meant to be a day of leisure, especially for workers and working families; it was also meant to be a day to remember the power and purpose of working people united in unions.

The tension between work and time off has always been a concern of the American labor movement. Work may be one of our core values, but it has a purpose, which is to allow us to live good lives, provide for ourselves and our families and, yes, to earn some time off to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Today, work and time off are badly out of balance, and Labor Day is a case in point. For too many people, especially low-wage workers, this day to celebrate working people is just another workday in a relentless slog.

TIme off shouldn’t be impossible. Yet for far too many workers today, paid time off to recover from an illness or injury or to care for a family member or a newborn child is an out-of-reach luxury.

This year, we took a deep dive into the issue with the help of the polling firm Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, which surveyed 1,000 workers from coast to coast on the availability of paid leave. We found a nation overcome by work, as corporations demand more of us, giving us less freedom to get away.

We saw in the results, and also know firsthand, the single best way for working people to win paid time off is by negotiating for it in a union. About 79% of union workers earn paid time off, compared to only 68% of non-union workers.

The poorer you are, the less time you have. The Economic Policy Institute found this August that only 41% of workers who earn wages in the bottom 10th percentile have paid time off and paid vacations, compared to over 92% of workers with wages in the top 10th percentile.

Across the board, union and non-union workers alike work more than ever: 54% of everyone surveyed reported working more holidays, 63% reported taking fewer vacation days and 43% bring work home at least one night a week.

Americans are among the hardest working people in the world, yet pay has flatlined for decades as the richest take away all the added wealth created by our rising productivity. Only 14% of workers have access to paid family leave. More than 37 million workers don’t get paid sick days, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. America is the only advanced nation that does not require employers to provide paid vacation. And erratic and inflexible scheduling practices have made it harder for workers to plan for the little time off we do have.

Many of us feel the lack of balance in our lives, which is why the movement for paid leave has been gaining momentum. Over the past decade, 40 million working people have won the freedom to take time off through workplace victories and state and local legislation.

It seems everyone has taken notice. Even Ivanka Trump and Silicon Valley have put forth plans to address this critical issue.

Talk won’t get give us the rest we need, though. The best answer is for more workers to have the freedom to negotiate together for better pay and benefits — including paid leave, overtime pay for holidays worked and paid time to care for ourselves or family members.

It should come as no surprise that our poll found that 54% of workers without the benefit of union membership would vote to join a union tomorrow if given the opportunity. And 72% believe that unions are responsible for helping workers get benefits like the Labor Day holiday and other paid time off.

This Labor Day, if you’re fortunate enough to relax and enjoy a barbeque or watch a game, consider committing yourself to those workers who will clock into a shift on Labor Day, many without the added bonus of overtime pay. Anyone can get involved. Raise your voice with America’s labor movement. Paid leave should be the rule, not the exception.

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