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Compass: On Labor Day, remember sacrifices of our parents

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day "constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country."

For years, we remembered the lives of men and women fighting to earn working conditions we take for granted today: eight-hour day, 40-hour week, weekends, health care and the right to collectively bargain for a share of the wealth our labor produces.

Today workers are under attack nationally and here at home. But workers are fighting back. Even low-wage non-union workers are going on strike across the country for better pay.

Trying hard to buck the trend locally, hundreds of citizens are fighting to preserve worker's rights, knee-deep in a modern battle to keep those rights earned long ago. Petitions to repeal Anchorage Ordinance 37 (AO 37) and to increase the state minimum wage are on the streets.

Productivity has risen dramatically over the past four decades but workers' earnings have either stayed flat or decreased. Yet corporate profits soar, executives buy Lear jets and more working families wind up in the soup line.

The labor market has changed. When I was young, fast food and many retail jobs were held by high school kids making minimum wage and trying to earn money for a car payment. No longer is that the case. Adults hold these jobs because they are often the only ones available.

Of the new jobs created since the Great Recession, 70 percent are low-wage jobs, meaning that people working full time still don't make enough to make it above the poverty line.

Many of America's workers can't afford a sick day. And for many, Labor Day is just another day on the job rather than a day off.

Labor leaders have been shouting from the mountain tops for over 40 years that middle class workers, union and non-union alike, have been getting the shaft. Despite this steady drum beat, anti-worker laws and the assault on workers in general has reached a fevered pitch.

In Alaska we can do something to help these hard-working Alaskans trying to support families on McDonald's wages. Give them a raise.

And while the modern workforce is increasingly built of retail workers, there will always be blue- and white-collar jobs in our local and state governments. These are historically good jobs with competitive pay and benefits. You weren't going to get rich but you could build a decent life. This stability is built on decades of collective bargaining where management and labor sit down, hammer out a deal and get back to work.

Last spring the Anchorage Assembly passed a bill gutting the practices that had resulted in smooth city operations for decades and plunged the municipality into a bitter fight with its employees.

AO 37 is a poorly executed play out of a national playbook. Unexpected was the reaction of the public to the attack on the services they value. Thousands of municipal workers and average citizens showed up to express their opposition, at the Assembly chambers and in the municipal elections. Last week the muni lost a court battle in its attempt to deny citizens the ability to repeal AO 37 by referendum. As a result that petition is in wide circulation today.

What will we be voting on? Simple. Are we going to keep laws that have been protecting workers and ensuring smooth operations for decades or are we going to strip all those rights away? Are we going to "outsource" city services to the lowest bidder or are we going to bargain at the table for a fair wage for a quality product?

So whether you're a low-wage worker fighting to gain a foothold or if you work in more traditional occupations with decent working conditions, don't let Labor Day be forgotten, relegated to be no more than the last barbecue day of summer without any connection to the sacrifices made by our parents and grandparents. Celebrate work and fight for the share of the economy that labor has earned.

Vince Beltrami is president of the Alaska chapter of the AFL-CIO.



By VINCE BELTRAMI