As we observe Labor Day, stakes could not be higher

September 5th marks 122 years since Labor Day became a federal holiday.

Since then, we have gone to the polls 30 times to vote for president, always keeping in mind a candidate’s dedication to protecting workers.

Today, as we prepare to head to the polls in November to elect a new president and state legislators, 30 holds a more distressing significance: for every dollar made by a Massachusetts family in the 99 percent, a household in the top one percent is making $30, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And these economic inequalities are exacerbated in communities of color – according to the Boston Federal Reserve, black and Latino households in Greater Boston claim only a fraction of the financial net worth of white households.

This is unacceptable.

Here are a few more numbers to keep in mind this November:

• 1.2 million: The number of Massachusetts workers making under $15 an hour. It’s 36 percent of the Massachusetts workforce, according to data from the National Employment Law Foundation.

• 23: The percentage share of all income held by the Bay State’s top one percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That income disparity puts Massachusetts at sixth highest in the country.

• 1: Boston’s spot on the Brookings Institution’s ranking of income inequality in 97 cities – ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Miami.

As we celebrate Labor Day this year, the stakes couldn’t be higher for the direction of our country. We face a stark choice between extreme politicians who seek to divide our communities and principled leaders who want to build a better future for our working families by addressing the income disparities plaguing our country and Commonwealth.

This Labor Day, we need a return to the values that created the American labor movement – fair wages, dignity in the workplace and equal opportunity for all workers. That when a hospital takes in record profits, all workers of the healthcare team share in the success because they are just as important to delivering quality care as the men and women in the executive office.

There’s need for action when top CEOs make 276 times the amount of average worker compensation – according to the Economic Policy Institute – and pay lower effective tax rates than their secretaries. Most recent data shows 85 percent of all income growth since the Great Recession has gone to the top one percent. This must change.

The global Fight for $15 movement has unified workers from across industries – including healthcare workers, fast food workers and big-box store employees, college professors, and airport workers – to advocate for a living wage and stronger worker protections. They have been fighting for the principles Labor Day represents: that there is something wrong when men and women work fulltime but still live in poverty.

Here in Massachusetts, workers have built a movement at the negotiating table, on Beacon Hill and at the ballot box in pursuit of justice on all fronts – economic, immigrant, racial and environmental. In the past year, through dedicated advocacy from our members, we won a $15 minimum wage for all workers at Boston Medical Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth and for 35,000 personal care attendants across the Commonwealth. And with our allies in the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, we took important steps to advance a constitutional amendment that requires millionaires to pay their fair share of taxes to improve public education and transportation.

The movement is securing meaningful victories for workers like Anestine Bentick of Dorchester. She’s worked as a lead medical assistant for 14 years, and she’s finally on track to make $15 because of a new contract at South Boston Community Health Center.

Unfortunately, these important changes are not enough to slow the widening gap between the super-rich and the rest of our country. We need to grow our movement and elect leaders who support us.
There are still six weeks to register to vote.

Our members and families know that when we vote on the issues we care about and elect candidates who share these values, we are closer to creating greater prosperity for all. We’ve spent the past few months organizing across the Commonwealth because we refuse to sit on the sidelines when our livelihoods are at risk.

In this era of record inequality, it’s never been more important to head to the polls and make our voices heard.

The moment for our movement is now – to stand up and protect our communities by sending a message to politicians at every level. We must support leaders who share our values, and we must hold accountable those who don't.

Tyrék D. Lee, Sr. is the Executive Vice President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents more than 52,000 healthcare workers throughout Massachusetts and over 400,000 workers across the East Coast.