Labor Day is meant to be a celebration of working people and their accomplishments. But many of us don’t feel much like celebrating these days.
All of us are weary amid this resurgent pandemic. None more so than front-line essential workers — particularly those in the health care system — who remain at risk of COVID-19 exposure every day they go to work. This bleak period has created an economic crisis for many families and has tested the limits of our communities’ social safety nets.
But I want to remind you this Labor Day that, when we finally emerge from this pandemic, working people in Washington state are uniquely positioned for their lives and livelihoods to recover. That’s because this is one of the best states to work in the nation.
Oxfam America, a global organization working to end the injustice of poverty, just released its latest rankings of the Best and Worst States to Work in America, and Washington once again ranks among the very best. Overall, Washington ranks seventh in the nation for having labor laws that make a real difference in the lives of people. Our paid sick and safe leave standard, relatively high minimum and tipped wage, paid family leave program, and strong laws protecting the right to join together in unions help lift Washington in these rankings.
In fact, last year when Oxfam did a special ranking of the Best States to Work During COVID, which gave extra weight to states with strong worker protections, health care systems and unemployment programs, Washington ranked No. 1. (See these rankings and methodology at OxFamAmerica.org.)
Let’s also remember that Washington didn’t become such a great place to work through the benevolence of our employers or elected officials. It happened because working people demanded it.
It’s no coincidence that a state with strong labor standards also has a strong union movement. With nearly 600,000 rank-and-file members representing 18.6% of the workforce, Washington ranks fifth highest in union density, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. When Washington’s unions advocate for better wages and working conditions, they do it not only by demanding strong contracts for their members, but also by advocating for public policies that benefit all workers.
For example, Washington was the first state in the nation to index its minimum wage so it automatically rises with inflation. That happened because Washington’s unions sponsored an initiative that voters approved to make it so. Paid sick leave for all workers in Washington? That also was a union-funded initiative approved by voters. Multiple state laws and policies — from paid family leave to overtime pay expansion — were approved thanks to strong support from organized labor.
On the other end of the spectrum, states with weak unions also have weak wage standards and worker protections. In this year’s Oxfam rankings, the worst states to work are, in order, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina. All five are so-called “right-to-work” states that actively discourage unions and have the lowest unionization rates in the country.
Washington’s unions have achieved much, but there’s more to be done.
Amid this pandemic, we are demanding safer workplaces, hazard pay and other protections. In the Legislature, unions are pushing for a transportation revenue package that puts people to work building the road and transit infrastructure necessary to sustain our state’s economy. We are also advocating for improved unemployment insurance standards, access to apprenticeship opportunities, and better support for front-line workers, like those in our stressed health care system, who are putting themselves at risk every day to help the rest of us get healthy and stay alive.
So this Labor Day, thank a union member for making Washington a great place to work. Many of organized labor’s achievements lift up all workers. That’s because looking out for each other is what unions are all about.