Brian Elder: On Labor Day, here’s why Michigan needs a working-class agenda

September 2, 2019 7:02 am

Susan J. Demas photo

Organized labor didn’t just give rise to the auto industry; it gave birth to the American middle class.  

These jobs set the standard around the country and allowed for the American dream to be made possible for all — regardless of their gender, race, religion or class. And because of that, there is no group of people more diverse than the working class.  

Let’s break down the numbers right here in Michigan. The House of Representatives has 110 seats. There are 17 state House districts in which the population is majority college educated — they also happen to be majority white.  

Michigan House | Susan J. Demas

That means there are 93 state House districts that are made up of a population that is working poor or working middle class. Of these 93 districts, 15 have a population which is also majority people of color. And overall, about 72% of adults in Michigan do not have a bachelor’s degree, so by definition, most of the citizens of Michigan are “working class.” They’re men and women of every age and color. They’re from all faith backgrounds and every corner of the state. 

And they make up the overwhelming majority of voters in our state.  

And so, by extension, a working-class agenda reflects their values and aspirations.  The original working-class agenda was focused on the immediate needs of workers and their families. Securing the right to collectively bargain for wages, hours and workplace safety had to be the focus at a time when workers routinely died on the job, were thrown out of work without notice and faced defenseless deprivation as a result.  

As the workers’ movement secured these basic rights, the focus changed. 

Since organized labor was bringing together workers regardless of race or religion, it was only natural that the working class agenda included demands for civil rights. Some have forgotten that it was unions that said that labor rights are civil rights, and that their organizations were early supporters of the civil rights movement.  

They’ve forgotten that the UAW and other unions paid many of the bills of the civil rights movement, or that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “I Have a Dream Speech” at Solidarity House and previewed it in Detroit at Cobo Hall.

American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. | William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

And from the days of Irish maids in the Northeast and washer women in the West, organized labor has included, and has been led by, women. With founding women like Mother Jones and Frances Perkins, the first female U.S. secretary of Labor, the working-class agenda came to include demands for equal pay for equal work, promotions based on seniority, paid sick leave, maternity leave and personal time.  There is no gender wage gap in a union.

A working-class agenda has supported the creation and maintenance of state and national parks and has fought to protect the natural resources so dear to our state because these things are important to workers. We support clean water and clean air because our people hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors. 

Organized labor has fought for equality for LGBTQ people — including fighting for domestic partnership benefits long before marriage equality was the law of the land — because our ranks, of course, include LGBTQ workers.  A true working-class agenda has always, and will always, reflect the complete diversity of those who work.  

Rep. Brian Elder at a labor rally | Elder photo

That’s why we’ve created the Michigan Legislative Labor Caucus, to reaffirm the simple truth that a “working-class agenda” is, at its core, the people’s agenda. 

Michigan is strongest when every person has a seat at the table and a stake in the game — and organized labor has always known that. Our work is to fight for the preservation and advancement of a policy agenda that reflects that truth.   

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Brian Elder
Brian Elder

An autoworker’s kid from Flint, state Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) is the chair of the Michigan Legislative Labor Caucus and in his second term serving the people of the 96th District.