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Labor Day: Will American Workers Be Stronger Because of the Pandemic?


In this Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021 file photo, Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union holds a sign outside an Amazon facility where labor is trying to organize workers in Bessemer, Ala.
Labor Day: Will American Workers Be Stronger because of the Pandemic?
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Monday, September 6, is Labor Day this year in the United States. The day to celebrate working people became a federal holiday in 1894. U.S. President Grover Cleveland signed the law making the first Monday in September a holiday.

Because Labor Day started so many years ago, many Americans do not think about the meaning of the holiday. Instead, it is a day to enjoy free time with friends and family. It is also considered the unofficial end of summer.

Many children go back to school after Labor Day, and many traditional summertime businesses, like amusement parks and ice cream shops, reduce their hours after Labor Day.

United Auto Workers union members march in the Labor Day Parade in Detroit, Michigan, Sept. 2, 2019.
United Auto Workers union members march in the Labor Day Parade in Detroit, Michigan, Sept. 2, 2019.

In 2021, however, people around the U.S. thought a lot about the way they make a living. That is because the COVID-19 health crisis changed many things in the U.S. Many businesses shut down or had employees work from home starting in March 2020.

Many office workers feel as if they are better off working at home because they do not have to spend time getting to their work place each day. They now have more time to spend with family and do fun activities.

But people who own manufacturing and food businesses are in trouble. There are shortages of some products because factories were shut down. Drinking places and restaurants are having trouble finding workers. Now, some restaurants are paying workers more money and offering extra pay to people who start jobs.

In Washington, D.C., the owner of Busboys and Poets, a popular restaurant and bookstore, recently announced every employee would earn at least $15 an hour. Andy Shallal is the owner. He told a local television station that he will also help his employees go to college and get better medical care.

During the health crisis, workers are thinking of finding new jobs or going back to school. A study by the Washington Post and George Mason University in Virginia found that about 30 percent of workers under 40 are planning to change jobs soon.

Other workers tried to organize in 2021. For example, people who work for online seller Amazon in the southern state of Alabama tried to form a labor union earlier this year. Unions are organizations of workers who negotiate as a group to ask their employers for more money, better conditions or more time off.

Ruth Milkman is a professor at the City University of New York. She studies labor. Milkman said more people are interested in being in unions today than before.

“You know, among young people, and especially college-educated young people, unions are cool again. You know, there’s a real interest, that we haven’t seen for quite some time, in organizing.”

One reason for that is the difference in income between the highest paid workers in the U.S. and the average worker.

In this photo taken July 16, 2019, tech workers march to support Facebook's cafeteria workers, who were rallying for a new contract with their company Flaghship in San Francisco.
In this photo taken July 16, 2019, tech workers march to support Facebook's cafeteria workers, who were rallying for a new contract with their company Flaghship in San Francisco.

Liz Shuler is president of the AFL-CIO, a big organization made up of 56 labor unions. During a recent event organized by the Christian Science Monitor newspaper and shown by the television network C-SPAN, she spoke about income inequality. She said it takes Jeff Bezos, the former head of Amazon, seven seconds to earn the amount of money that the average Amazon worker makes in one year.

“That’s not right. There should be a way for workers to come together and actually get their fair share of the wealth that they’re creating for companies like Amazon.”

Workers protested for fair pay and other protections in the early days of the labor movement in the U.S. The Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 established a minimum wage. The last time the federal minimum wage was raised was in 2009. Some local governments in the U.S. want to make $15 the minimum wage. However, the AFL-CIO believes the minimum wage should be closer to $24.

The Congressional Budget Office does research for Congress. It reported in February that if the U.S. were to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 it would result in the loss of about 1.4 million jobs. But the office said about 900,000 people would no longer be considered poor.

President Joe Biden spoke about raising the minimum wage during his presidential campaign. But an increase was dropped from the recent $1.2 trillion spending deal passed by Congress.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event on manufacturing and buying American-made products at UAW Region 1 headquarters in Warren, Mich.
FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event on manufacturing and buying American-made products at UAW Region 1 headquarters in Warren, Mich.

Some labor advocates say the best way for workers to earn more money is to unionize. However, they say laws in the U.S. make it easy for businesses to interfere with employees who want to form unions. Labor unions want politicians to vote for a bill called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.

Jonas Loeb is the Director of Communications for IATSE, a union that represents people who work for theater, movie and television productions. He said although people seem to support unions, it is often hard for employees to come together and join one.

“Just because people want to join and form unions, doesn’t mean that they will be able to, right? And this is why I think what happens next hinges so much on what happens in Washington.”

Milkman believes that the average person has a good opinion of unions, and has sympathy for low-paid workers and their problems.

But, she warned, gains made by workers during the coronavirus crisis may not last long.

“Once the labor market is no longer one of a shortage of low-wage workers, I think you can assume that employers will cut wages.”

I’m Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

How should Americans think about work this Labor Day? Tell us in the Comments Section and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

amusement park –n. a place with games and rides such as roller coasters

union –n. an organization of workers formed to protect the rights and interests of its members

minimum wage –n. an amount of money that is the least amount of hourly pay permitted by the law

advocate –n. a person who argues for or supports a cause or policy

hinge –v. to depend on; to be decided by something

assume –v. to think something is true without knowing that it is true

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