Guest Columnist

Bennet: Workers need leaders who stand with them

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., speaks to a crowd at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 11, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., speaks to a crowd at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 11, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges

This past weekend, my wife Susan and I celebrated Labor Day in Eastern Iowa the same way we’ve always celebrated it in Colorado: spending time with friends and neighbors, with the help of a hot grill and a cold drink, to honor the legacy of the workers who paved the way before us. For many Americans, it’s the very same well-deserved chance to unwind before school, work, and football season start demanding more of our energy.

But it hasn’t always been that way. Workers in Iowa have had to fight for their rights — for fair wages and safe workplaces — every step of the way. Iowa’s first union was formed in 1854; in 1877, railroad employees in Ottumwa staged the first strike in state history. Progress came in fits and starts.

By the time President Grover Cleveland finally recognized Labor Day as a federal holiday in 1894, thousands of workers had marched on New York, Chicago, and other cities to protest low wages and inhumane workplace conditions. Those workers risked unemployment, poverty and starvation because they believed in America’s core promise: if you work hard, you and your family deserve a fair shake.

We’ve come a long way since 1894. But today, workers in Donald Trump’s economy are more vulnerable than they’ve been in decades.

Here’s the hard truth: President Donald Trump has broken every promise he made to working Americans. He promised “great health care” at “a fraction of the price,” but his administration has taken it away from millions of Americans. He promised massive infrastructure investments, which would transform local economies, but he hasn’t even managed to write a plan — much less pass one through Congress. And he claimed trade wars would be “easy to win,” but Iowa’s farmers know firsthand that his ham-handed efforts so far have been an expensive mistake.

Our workers deserve better.

As president, I’ll pursue three big ideas to reward hard work. First, let’s invest $500 billion in American workers over the next decade. That investment would transform local economies by creating Regional Opportunity Compacts, connecting what students are learning in school with the needs of future employers in their area. Imagine: parents could send their child to school in Cedar Rapids with the confidence that she’s learning skills that will make her a valued employee at companies right here in her neighborhood.

Second, let’s empower workers. It starts with safeguarding the future of the labor movement by making union dues deductible and strengthening collective bargaining. Whether you’re in a union or not, you deserve paid family and medical leave. And let’s ban the absurd “no poaching” and noncompete clauses that accomplish nothing beyond limiting Americans’ employment options. If President Donald Trump cared as much about “forgotten Americans” as he claims to, he would’ve done so already. On top of this, let’s create real economic security for families by putting more money in working parents’ pockets with expanded child and earned income tax credits.

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Finally, let’s acknowledge a hard truth: eventually, we’re going to enter another recession. And we need to be ready for it. Our response should be proactive, not reactive. That means issuing automatic, direct payments to workers, families, and seniors as soon as the economy shows significant signs of weakness to prevent — or at the very least shorten — a recession. It means automatically increasing federal support for programs like Medicaid and nutrition assistance, so when the economy tumbles, our safety net is strong. And it also means extending unemployment insurance during the worst of times and investing in infrastructure to get the economy going again.

American workers have made this country the most prosperous nation in history. They have earned their day of celebration this past Monday. But more importantly, they deserve political leaders who stand with them on Tuesday and Wednesday — and every day thereafter. The three-day weekend might have passed, but we can still create a Labor Day that’s worthy of its rich legacy.

Michael Bennet is a U.S. senator from Colorado and a Democratic candidate for president.

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