This blog first appeared in the Huffington Post.
On Labor Day we celebrate with barbecues, baseball and beer. But the original idea was to celebrate the contributions working people make to our country. And work is a crucial part of our identity as Americans. In fact, the United States is home to some of the most productive people on the planet, and apart from Korea, we put in more hours at work than every country in the world.
Yet for many Americans who want to work today, a job is out of reach. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of work in the life of the country as this Labor Day approaches. Despite recently reaching the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and the landmark Civil Rights Act, we still have a long way to go in achieving the full inclusion that I believe is at the heart of the American dream.
Given our national obsession with work, employment means a lot for not just our pocketbooks, but also our dignity and place in society. From my perspective, the bottom line for the American Dream is inclusion in the workforce. To me that means everyone who wants to and can work has a job. It means we have the chance to bring our skills and talents to bear. To be part of a team. It means equal pay for equal work, and reasonable pay. It means we have the chance for upward mobility.
It’s all gotten me thinking about my own family and our work history. In 1970, I was a 15 year old with butterflies in my stomach as I stood in a huge line in a big government building in downtown New York City getting my work permit so I could receive an official paycheck from my first job at a child care center.
I was just a mile or so away from the streets where my immigrant grandfather had worked as a janitor in a tenement building, and my grandmother had sold pots and pans from a cart with my father, Jacob, calling out the benefits of the wares to get the attention of potential buyers. My other grandmother was living up in Harlem, and the South Bronx a few years later, renting out rooms to make ends meet during the Depression, not happy to have to get aid from the government to feed her two young children. They all worked really hard.
Fast forward. My father’s speaking skills, honed from selling cookware, improved over time. He didn’t graduate college, but did get a law degree and worked as an attorney. When he got back from a stint in World War II Army intelligence, he ran for office and became a Congressman, New York State Attorney General, and finally U.S. Senator from New York.
He never forgot his roots, and always stood up for the rights of working people and economic inclusion, which he viewed as 100% compatible with the growth of capitalism and the rights and responsibilities of business, which he also tirelessly promoted.
My own personal work journey continued as well, and has culminated in my leadership of REDF, an organization focused on improving jobs and employment opportunities for people facing significant barriers to work.
These are the people who have long been and continue to be excluded from the workforce – and we all pay the price. They exited prison and could not get a job so they end up back behind bars. They are veterans who were overwhelmed by the traumas they faced and injuries they suffered so they are homeless, and even the companies targeting jobs to veterans won’t offer them a chance. They are people who have struggled to overcome the all too human tragedies of alcoholism and addiction.
Take for example the story of Juan Tello, a young man working for a REDF-backed general contracting company called Hope Builders in Orange County. Juan’s story easily could have had a very different ending, but a job helped him start again. When he was 14 years old, he was convicted of a gang related felony, and was given a seven-year sentence. Doing time prompted Juan to change. While incarcerated, Juan got his high school diploma, joined a support group, and was rewarded a reduced sentence for good behavior.
When he was released, he cut all ties to his gang and set out to find work. The task was not going to be easy, because many employers just won’t hire people with a criminal record. His probation officer told him about Hope Builders. Juan showed up early each day and studied hard every night. Soon Juan was promoted to a full-time position, and is helping support his family.
There are many stories like Juan’s that demonstrate the transformative power of a job for individuals, their families, and communities. When we ask people who have struggled to get work what they treasure most about the job, their first response is not what you’d predict – a paycheck. It’s about dignity and the chance to contribute.
As you lick the barbecue off your fingers this Labor Day, I would ask you to consider — as employers or entrepreneurs, as donors, voters, neighbors, in your religious or civic activities – what is one action you can take to create more inclusion in the workforce. Let’s toast the hard working people of our country, and use that American drive and optimism to make sure all those that want to work get that chance.
Interested in learning more about Juan and his amazing story? Join us at our 2014 Benefit and hear Juan talk about his journey from jail to a job.