This post was originally published on New York Amsterdam News

By Stephon Johnson

The COVID pandemic has emphasized the importance of job protection. Unions have aided in that protection. This Labor Day celebrates not just union power, but union power in a time where people feel powerless. 

“In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic was the first time most Americans were introduced to the concept of ‘essential workers,’” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Traded Department, AFL-CIO (TTD) to the AmNews. “When businesses closed and entire communities went dark, millions of working people––including those who power our transportation system–– didn’t have the luxury of working from home. They risked their health and wellbeing to report for duty and see us through this crisis.

“The truth is, these workers aren’t just essential in times of crisis. They were essential before the pandemic, and they will always be essential. This Labor Day, I hope Americans will reflect on the real sacrifices working people make, and have always made, on behalf of our country and economy.”

The term “essential worker” took on a new meaning these past 15 months. The public-at-large realized how important workers like nurses, housekeepers, security guards, cleaners, corrections officers, teachers and handypeople were. New Yorkers engaged in a daily applause, at 7 p.m., to show their appreciation for essential workers who are on the frontlines, increasing their chances of acquiring COVID than the average New Yorkers. 

Elected officials have noticed. This week, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced that around $7.5 million stolen prevailing wages were returned to 400 essential workers during the COVID pandemic. This comes off Stringer launching a phone banking campaign to identify and return unclaimed/stolen wages back to labor. 

“During the economic hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever that workers get the wages they are rightfully owed,” said Comptroller Stringer. “I am proud that my office, in partnership with labor and community-based organizations, has connected more than 400 workers with $7.5 million in stolen wages. I always say that every week should be Labor Rights Week, because workers are most empowered when they know their rights and can advocate for what they deserve.”

While COVID is the current culprit, there have been other dangers at the workplace. Luckily, some of those issues were taken care of in a law that passed in 1970.

Since the government enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) more than 600,000 worker lives have been saved. The annual cost of workers injury and illness nationally is more than $250 billion.

According to City Hall, in 2020 alone, 298 frontline municipal employees died from the coronavirus. The deceased were disproportionately Black and Latino. According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, as of early April, 156 transit workers had died from COVID. 

Despite the many deaths surrounding organized labor, there were still things to be thankful for. Things that could’ve made this situation worse.

“This Labor Day, we recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants who risked their lives in their fight to improve conditions for workers,” said SEIU 32BJ President Kyle Bragg to the AmNews. “Their efforts secured the right to collective bargaining, a 40-hour work week, and workplace safety standards, among other hard-fought victories for working people. Organized labor is the strongest force we have for building the middle class and ending poverty. The improved conditions that unions secure for unionized workers lift up all workers. 

“We have much more to do to secure full dignity and respect for workers, including improving conditions for essential workers who put themselves and their families’ health on the line during this nation’s darkest days. Supporting the workers who risked it all for this country is a smart investment—and a moral imperative.”

Essential workers across the Hudson River used Labor Day to practice the rights that their predecessors fought for. 

Early Wednesday, dozens of concierge workers at the luxury development The Shipyard, located in Hoboken, New Jersey gathered and protested the lack of insurance and benefits provided to them by their contractor Planned Companies (which was once investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor who found they the contractor engaged in wage theft failing to pay the full overtime wages owed for training periods to more than 500 employees). They’ve called for Ironstate Development, a major property owner in the area, to help them improve worker conditions, benefits, paid time off or hire a contractor who will.

“This is the city I love, and this city is my home; but many like myself need good jobs to afford a living in Hoboken,” stated Jaron Bermudez, a Shipyard concierge who relies on Medicaid to address their health problems, “We need benefits, healthcare, dignity and respect.”

“Personnel at Ironstate buildings lack the basic benefits, and the dignity that all essential workers deserve,” added Kevin Brown, vice president of 32BJ and New Jersey State director. “If Ironstate wants to build, they must hire contractors that treat these workers as essential, not expendable. The city of Hoboken deserves responsible developers and contractors to lift up everyone––not just the wealthy few.”