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OPINION: Oregon union leader says Labor Day is a good time for all working people to commit themselves to work for change

The world as we know it has changed, and at the center of that change is the prosperity and dignity of working people which hangs perilously in limbo. Our economy and institutions pivot on how working people are faring: wages, benefits and working conditions are the traditional barometers of workers' health and welfare, but 2020 has made it abundantly clear that such measurements are insufficient.

Now, more than ever before, we need an economy that is fair and just for everyone. When a pandemic devastates working families and the stock market climbs, there is a clear problem. When police and federal officers beat and gas peaceful protesters for speaking up against racism, there is a problem. And when federal, state and local lawmakers fail to respond adequately to these issues, we cannot sit by and be content with the status quo.

The events of this year have widened already threadbare gaps in our nation, state and communities. These gaps are seen in the disproportionate level of impacts on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), many of whom are deemed essential by employers and cannot simply work from home during the largest public health crisis in generations.

Compounding that reality is the fact that BIPOC communities are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and many other forms of institutionalized, systemic racism. These gaps are not new; they have simply been ripped open wider as each week passes in our new shared reality of uncertainty.

Labor Day's meaning has changed over the years for many people: the end of summer, a chance to barbecue, or for many, another day working. For unions, it has traditionally been a day of pride in our work and in the organizations we build to protect all working people. This year, I am confronted with the juxtaposition of tradition and the demands of our new shared reality.

Unions rightly prioritize raising the standards of wages, benefits and working conditions for their members and [for] all workers. At the same time, we must prioritize the inextricable link between the struggles of racial and economic justice. In order to realize our shared vision of a fair and just economy for all, our movement must embrace these critical changes that will further galvanize the working class toward a common agenda united by these demands for change.

I urge not only union members, but all working people to heed this call for change. We are at a moment in history where our choices will determine the futures of our children, and their children. In Oregon, workers are still without adequate protection and safety standards at work. Police brutality and systemic racism are exposed more than ever before, but we still lack the tools and oversight at the state and local levels needed to actually solve the problem. Our next opportunity is on Nov. 3, when we can use our voices as one and vote for candidates who are also not content with the status quo but will champion real solutions to the pandemic, the economy and systemic racism.

Amidst the pandemic and national waves of protest, another alarming facet of 2020 has emerged: an attack on voting, especially vote-by-mail and the United States Postal Service. Now, more than ever before in the history of our nation, we must find ways to ensure everyone who is eligible can vote in November.

As a state where vote-by-mail is the standard, many Oregonians continue to be shocked by the vitriolic words against accessible voting from President Donald Trump and disturbed to see pictures of iconic blue mailboxes being loaded into trucks. This is a threat to democracy, and we cannot take it lightly.

It's not just about who is in the White House for the next four years, although that is a critical concern for working people nationwide. We also need true advocates in Congress, in the Oregon Legislature, in county commissions and city councils. Beyond the election, unions must continue to look further than wages, benefits and working conditions as the only vessels for change and embrace this moment in history to use our strength to turn the tide toward progress for all.

Graham Trainor is president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, a statewide federation of unions representing over 300,000 working Oregonians. He can be reached at

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