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Fifty-five years ago, in a speech to the convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. laid out with characteristic moral clarity the essential role of unions in American life. “The labor movement,” he explained, “was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress … [When] the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society. Civilization began to grow in the economic life of man, and a decent life with a sense of security and dignity became a reality rather than a distant dream.”

This Labor Day, America’s working families are facing unprecedented challenges.

The path to the presidency runs through the labor movement.

“For all workers, the toll of COVID-19 infections and deaths is mounting and will increase even more rapidly as workers return to work without necessary safety and health protections,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote in the letter, which listed dozens of members who have died from the virus. He faulted the agency for not doing more inspections, not issuing citations and releasing only voluntary coronavirus safety guidelines. “Without government oversight and enforcement, too many employers are disregarding safety and health standards,” he wrote.

The national union that represents workers in meatpacking and food processing jobs, the United Food and Commercial Workers, says the administration should enact enforceable standards instead of guidance that requires protections like protective equipment, physical distancing, daily testing for workers and paid sick leave so workers can stop the spread of illness. And Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, echoed their concerns tweeting, "Using executive power to force people back on the job without proper protections is wrong and dangerous."

The AFL-CIO warned Tuesday that workplaces were still far too dangerous to consider reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic, even as some governors are starting to lift restrictions in order to get businesses up and running again. Richard Trumka, the federation’s president, said there was still insufficient personal protective equipment and not enough testing to make worksites safe yet. He called for stronger legal protections for those who will have to refuse dangerous work as their employers begin to call them back.

This has been a month like no other in modern American history. We are in a war against an invisible virus that has required most people to stay home to fight it. With each day of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans have grown increasingly grateful for things we used to take for granted, like grocery workers, without whom we could not meet our most basic needs. Parents have a new appreciation for how complex and demanding teaching is, and for how teachers are helping their children continue learning, stay engaged and stay safe inside during this uneasy time.

"Once again the CDC is putting profits over people with its latest recommendations that downgrade worker protections at a time when they are needed most," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

Much of the American workplace has shut down, sending millions of employees home to wait out the coronavirus pandemic.

North Carolina workers need a raise. For 11 consecutive years, the cost of living (food, rent, education, childcare) has increased causing our minimum wage to decline in value by 24 percent. Now, a person working full-time while making $7.25 an hour lives thousands of dollars below the federal poverty threshold.

Campaigning for the presidency in 2016, Donald Trump promised that, if he was elected, “American worker[s] will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.”  Has he kept this promise? When it comes to protecting workers’ health and safety, his administration has been a disaster. Once in office, Trump packed the leadership of U.S.