Senate President Stephen Sweeney
Deputy Speaker John Burzichelli
Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro

Times of Trenton –  By Stephen Sweeney

When I first started as an Ironworker with Local 399 in Camden, I learned the Ironworkers’ motto is “The sky’s the limit,” and that’s the way I feel today on this Labor Day – for the union movement and for all New Jersey workers. For me, Labor Day is a day to reflect on how far we’ve come and on how far we have to go.

When the New Jersey State Legislature proclaimed Labor Day a state holiday in 1887 – seven years before Congress made it a national holiday – workers in New Jersey were still working 10-hour days, child labor laws were weak and rarely enforced, and workplaces were unsafe and virtually unregulated.

In the decades that followed, New Jersey’s labor movement has been a force for progressive change that benefited workers and their families, union and non-union alike. Unions got the state’s first factory inspector appointed in 1883, pushed through the nation’s strongest fire code legislation after 26 women died in a Newark factory fire in 1910, and won passage of landmark workers compensation legislation under Governor Woodrow Wilson the following year. Wilson went on to sign the first federal child labor law as President.

Unions made the eight-hour day and the five-day workweek a reality, built the middle class, and raised both wages and expectations – the expectations that workers who worked full time deserved a living wage, that workplaces should be safe, that jobs should provide health insurance and a secure retirement, and that each succeeding generation should have it better than their parents.

Unions helped Gov. Tom Kean pass a Transportation Trust Fund that rebuilt the state’s highways and mass transit system. Unions supported minimum pay for teachers. And unions were the driving force in passing the nation’s second family leave law – one that gave all New Jerseyans, regardless of where they worked,  the ability to be with their families in times of crisis the way my union job enabled me to be with my infant daughter Lauren when she born premature and diagnosed with Down syndrome.

As Senate President, I know how important the labor movement was in passing a constitutional amendment last November that raised the minimum wage and indexed future increases to the rate of inflation – part of what is now a national movement to guarantee a living wage to those working in the fast-food restaurants and big-box stores that are the factories of the 21st Century.

Union workers don’t make minimum wage, but they recognize the struggles of those who do, and the responsibility of the labor movement to be a progressive force for all workers and their families. That’s why they were such vocal supporters of the Dream Act to enable children of undocumented workers to go to college at in-state tuition rates, and why they are joining us in pushing for earned sick leave for every New Jersey worker.

On this Labor Day, we recognize that we all have a lot to do to build on the accomplishments of past generations in order to make New Jersey the state we all want it to be – a place where our children will have the opportunity to do better than ourselves.

The challenges are daunting: New Jersey has not bounced back from the Great Recession as quickly as our neighbors, and our unemployment rate remains stubbornly above the national average. Poverty is growing, as is the wage gap between rich and poor.

We need to shore up our state’s finances. We need to fix our public employee pension systems both to safeguard the pensions that our workers and retirees have earned and to protect the interests of future taxpayers. And we need to make the investments in higher education and transportation infrastructure that will enable us to compete in a global economy.

The trains that run between New Jersey and New York run through 105-year-old tunnels that were planned and built by our great-grandfathers; they were engineering marvels, but new tunnels need to be built. What will our great-grandchildren say about us if we don’t live up to our responsibility to leave them a better New Jersey?

It may look like a steep climb, but we can make it. The sky’s the limit. Let’s get to work.

Senator Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is President of the New Jersey Senate and General Vice President of the Ironworkers Union.

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