OPINION: Will we seize this opportunity to rebuild our economy?

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Holidays are cause for Americans to look back and remember the people and events, the sacrifices and accomplishments that make our country great. Labor Day is no exception.

On the first Monday in September, we celebrate the ways organized labor has improved our lives, from the 40-hour workweek and child-labor laws to organizing rights and workplace safety.

This year Labor Day is also cause for Americans to look forward.

As our economy climbs out of its worst recession since the 1930s, we face a choice. Will we repeat the mistakes of the past? Or will we seize the opportunity to rebuild our economy so that it works for all Americans and their families?

Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs have announced their vision for our economic recovery. They are not learning from the mistakes that led us into this mess. They are not popping the executive pay bubble. They are not rewarding long-term stability over short-term gains. They are conducting business as usual. They are raking in bonuses and stock options and balking at congressional calls for greater oversight of financial markets.

In fact, CEOs are now using federal bailout money to satisfy corporate greed. A report released last week by the Institute for Policy Studies found that the top five executives at 10 of the 20 largest banks to take bailout money received a combined increase of nearly $90 million in the value of their stock options. Meanwhile, those same 20 banks have laid off more than 160,000 workers since Jan. 1, 2008.

As executive compensation explodes, wages for the rest of us – those of us lucky enough to have a job – are stagnating. The Economic Policy Institute’s annual wage report shows that private-sector wages grew by just 1.3 percent between December 2008 and June 2009. And for those workers who have been laid off, it’s the toughest job market in a generation, with job seekers outnumbering job openings 8 to 1 in Minnesota, according to the JOBS NOW Coalition.

It’s clear this recession is hitting working families harder than corporate executives. Fortunately, unions are leading the fight for an economic recovery that puts Americans to work. We’re working for family-supporting jobs, for more organizing rights on the job and for reform that curtails the skyrocketing costs of health care. That’s why the labor movement – with its message, its principles and its resources – has never been more relevant than it continues to be today.

Shar Knutson is president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Next month, she takes office as president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor federation representing 300,000 union members.


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