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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.

Belonging to a union is not a panacea for all that plagues workers during a pandemic, as many hospital and other workers short on protective gear can attest. Still, being covered by a collective bargaining does increase the chances of having medical coverage and paid sick time — benefits that are particularly important during a public health crisis — a new study finds. Nearly all, or 94%, of workers covered by a union contract have access to employee-sponsored health benefits, compared to 68% of nonunion workers, according to recent research published by the Economic Policy Institute.

One way to view President Donald Trump’s executive actions last week on COVID relief is that they represent unlawful overreach. But that would imply that while his actions are illegal, they are nevertheless effective — and therein lies the core problem. What our showman president signed last week was nothing more than smoke and mirrors. 

In March, working families across the country started to scramble. Our homes were transformed into makeshift classrooms, summer camps and daycare centers as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and child care facilities.

More than three years after taking office, the administration has never filled the job running the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is charged with enforcing workplace safety laws. The $560 million-a-year agency, whose estimated 2,000 inspectors performed 32,020 on-site inspections in 2018, spent months not doing any in-person inspections related to coronavirus, other than in hospitals, said Rebecca Reindel, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO.

Working people are bearing the brunt of this global pandemic and economic crisis. The physical toll, death, pain, and suffering that Oregon’s frontline and essential workers have experienced is unprecedented.

Coupled with the economic collapse that has exacerbated long-term inequities for low wage workers and BIPOC communities, workers are hurting and they need protections.

Daniel DiSalvo asks: “Will Unions Let Schools Reopen?” (op-ed, June 30). Of course! The AFT published our school reopening plan in April. We said it isn’t a question of whether to reopen, but how to do it safely. We need the infrastructure and investment to physically distance, stagger classes, provide personal protective equipment and test, trace and isolate new cases.

Racial disparities in who contracts the virus have played out in big cities like Milwaukee and New York, but also in smaller metropolitan areas like Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Bradleys live. Those inequities became painfully apparent when Ms. Bradley, who is Black, was wheeled through the emergency room. Early numbers had shown that Black and Latino people were being harmed by the virus at higher rates.