Reflections on Labor Day from Funders for a Just Economy

By Manisha Vaze, Senior Program Manager of NFG's Funders for a Just Economy


This Labor Day weekend, as we celebrate the last days of summer with barbeques and back-to-school preparation, I am thinking about how the labor movement is facing some of the most serious threats to its future. Well-funded efforts are shutting down public sector unions and workers’ ability to collectively bargain, while corporations are using their lobbying power to lock contingent and informal workers out of basic labor protections.  Companies are worming out of providing basic benefits such as health care, sick days, family leave, and fair work schedules, while also receiving significant tax breaks. These corporations are being propped up as saviors of the American workforce because of their ability to create jobs, or because of the beloved nature of their products, services, and shipping times that come at the literal expense of the workers who make, provide, and deliver these goods.

To me, it’s no accident that while the American economy is purportedly at its height, wages have continued to stagnate and workers have seen little to no benefits. The shifts in the economy have largely come from a culture of extraction of resources from companies on to shareholders and CEOs. It is part of not decades, but centuries of poor labor conditions, racist economic policies, and use of slave labor.

Moreover, we are getting distracted by the short-sighted antics of politics and politicos who are campaigning in two- and four-year cycles instead of working to build long term democratic values in our public policies and budgets. And culturally, many are more interested in maintaining their partisan identities and white supremacy than their own ability to make ends meet.

Despite this doom and gloom, what’s clear is that there is energy and motivation to bring back a culture of interdependence, collectivism, and a demand for basic rights. The current prison strike is emblematic of this energy – incarcerated people are standing up to slavery and exploitation as they are stripped of their constitutional rights. In Los Angeles, United Teachers LA just voted to authorize a strike for better pay and smaller class sizes, following many teacher strikes this year including one in Southwest Washington last week. These efforts are proof that workers will organize against the bosses and resist the authoritarian conditions that lead to their mistreatment, regardless of the cuts to legal protections and structures in place to defend workers’ rights.

These efforts also occurred without any philanthropic funding. Recent data shows that funding towards economic and labor rights are a paltry 6% of the total funding that goes towards human rights, with grassroots organizing efforts being one of the least funded. But, shifting power to create the conditions for real change requires larger investments and larger resources, and more risk taking. When workers are willing to lose wages, face extreme retaliation, and risk their livelihoods, how can we as funders stand by, citing the barriers of our program strategies and five-year plans? Now, more than ever, we need to be fighting for the future of labor and employment – one that is about the value of work and improving the quality of life for everyday people. 

Assata Shakur wrote that “It is our duty to fight for our freedom / It is our duty to win.” Funders, are we ready to do everything in our power to make sure we win?