This Labor Day, workers in Chicago and across the country are calling for higher wages and an economy that works for all — not just the wealthy few. They’ve had enough of the corporate greed that is devastating our economy.

Workers — including janitors, security officers, adjunct professors and the men and women employed in our nursing homes, hospitals and airports — are demanding a living wage and unions that give workers a voice in the workplace.

OPINION

Unions not only helped end child labor in the United States and brought us the 40-hour workweek, they lifted workers out of poverty and created the middle class.

When labor was strong, America was strong. Over recent decades, we’ve seen anti-worker policies push union membership to record lows as corporate greed and income inequality have reached record highs.

Declining union membership over the past several decades has been directly linked to the middle class’ shrinking share of national income.

Unions are a buffer against rising income inequality and the key to raising standards for workers. We know that union workers receive better wages, benefits and working conditions than non-union workers, and middle class households earn more in states with greater union membership. Union jobs build strong families and communities.

That’s why, more and more today, workers are demanding a union. Low-wage workers in the Fight for $15 movement are pushing for union rights. Working people are demanding a voice in the system.

Today, 64 million Americans make less than $15 an hour. Most of these low-wage jobs are in the fast-growing service economies and disproportionately held by women and workers of color.

American jobs were once abundant in U.S. factories. Today, places like our airports, hospitals and nursing homes, where there are large concentrations of workers making less than $15, are the factories of our economy. In these industries, service workers like wheelchair attendants and certified nursing assistants are commonly paid so little they cannot afford basic necessities, including food, housing and healthcare.

Take Violet Winston, for example. She works 40 hours a week as a certified nursing assistant and must still depend on public assistance to take care of her family because her wages are so low.

Workers like Violet make our economy run, yet too many are trapped in poverty-wage jobs that burden taxpayers with employers’ responsibilities. They shouldn’t have to struggle to provide a decent life for themselves and a better one for their children.

Service jobs should be good jobs that put workers on a path to the middle class.

The time to shift the balance of power back to working people is now. We do that by sticking together and fighting to raise the minimum wage and for our right to join unions.

Tom Balanoff is president of Service Employees International Union Local 1. He is also on the executive board of the Chicago Federation of Labor, which has an ownership stake in the Chicago Sun-Times. Greg Kelley is president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana Missouri and Kansas.

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