On Labor Day, we recognize and honor the achievements of Connecticut’s working people. In 2017, this annual celebration comes at a critical time for our state and our nation. Collective action is on the rise – yet so are the attacks on our pay, health care, retirement security and rights on the job.

As we enjoy the fellowship of our loved ones at a barbecue, fireworks or other community event, it also is important to reflect on the best ways working people can come together to build an economy that works for all of us.

In growing numbers, working families across the country are taking action to win the freedom to negotiate a fair return on our work so we can provide for our families. As a result of our unity at the bargaining table, working people in 2016 won the largest pay increase in years. A strong majority of Americans have a positive view of unions. Working people are organizing, from traditional manufacturing to higher education to the digital economy.

Just last month, more than 100 program managers at the Department of Children and Families organized into a union to establish a stronger voice at work. In February of this year, about 200 graduate workers at Yale followed the path of the graduate workers at UConn and joined together in union. Last August, over 900 workers at Danbury and New Milford Hospital did the same. And in November, nearly 200 attorneys in the public defenders’ office spoke up together and formed their union. The same go for the workers at Yankee Gas, dispatchers in Cromwell, police in Woodbury, and the nurses at CREC. The list goes on and on.

Working people know that the best chance to have a voice at work, get a raise, and have the ability to retire with dignity is to join together in union. That’s why in 2016, Connecticut has the largest number of working people in unions since the turn of the century – a total of 275,000 union members, which is a net gain of 6,000 members from the previous year (latest data available).

We are standing up to the corporate-backed politicians who for decades have continued to take away the freedoms unions have won for all of us. Whether it’s attempting to limit collective bargaining rights of public employees, attacking the wages of construction workers, rollbacks on workplace safety, or the assault on our pay and benefits by Congress and the White House, it is critical that we continue to organize and mobilize around an agenda that gives working people the freedom to join together.

We also need to continue organizing and mobilizing around the state budget. Working people need the legislature to support a fair share state budget that does not solely rely on cuts to middle class workers and the state’s most vulnerable. Instead, we should be asking corporations and the wealthy to contribute more. Despite Connecticut being the wealthiest state in the richest nation on the planet, we also suffer from the worst income inequality in the entire country.

By continuing to rely on an austerity “cuts-only” approach to resolving the budget deficit, the legislature will only exacerbate and perpetuate the problem. Eventually, by continually catering to the extremely wealthy and corporate CEOs, we will live in a state that only works for the wealthy few.

What we need is a more balanced approach that isn’t dependent on damaging public services or asking working families alone to bear the burden of protecting our quality of life. The last two years have proven that austerity policies don’t work and that we cannot cut our way to prosperity.

Today, even as we ride a wave of new worker organizing, our economy remains badly out of balance. The CEO-to-worker pay ratio in 2016 was an obscene 347 to 1. Meanwhile, many corporations are shipping our jobs overseas and stashing profits offshore to avoid paying taxes.

Yet inequality is not inevitable. Our economy is nothing more than a set of rules. We can, and we must, elect leaders who will rewrite those rules so wages are high, benefits are strong, work is safe, retirement is secure and the freedom to negotiate is universal.

This Labor Day, as we celebrate the contributions of working families, let’s also pledge to do the hard work of transforming our economy so every single American can work for a better life.

Lori J. Pelletier is the President of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

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