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Renewing the spirit of Labor Day in Minnesota

Monday we will celebrate Labor Day, a holiday that honors the working men and women of this country. Many have come to take this holiday for granted, but this year with all the unemployment and difficult times that people are facing, I think we should take Labor Day a little more seriously and remember what it means.

It was only a little over a hundred years ago that working people in this country were forced to put in 12- or 14-hour work days, often seven days a week. Many children couldn't go to school because they went to work by the time they were 10 or 12 years old. In 1894 the Pullman Strike, in which 50,000 rail workers walked off their jobs, came to a end only when President Grover Cleveland sent in the U,S. Army to battle workers to give up their fight. The bloody debacle woke up Congress and in only six days they rushed through legislation, which the president signed, to establish Labor Day as a national holiday.

It took until 1938 for Congress to enact the Fair Labor Standards Act setting a maximum workweek of 44 hours and establishing a 25-cent-an-hour minimum wage. While this act has been expanded in subsequent decades, we still have to fight to get decent wages for working people. I have fought in the Minnesota House time and again, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to increase the minimum wage, for a safe workplace, and for many other benefits that improve working families' quality of life. Yet I continue to get pressure from businesses to reduce the "burden" of fair pay - only last week I received mail telling me that restaurants needed to offset restaurant workers wages with their tips.

We need to show the importance of Labor Day to our neighbors, our children, and our government. I have fond memories as a kid going to Ely Lake Park just south of Eveleth for the Labor Day picnic. It was one of the biggest, most important events of the year! I remember our great Minnesota delegation of DFL heroes like Hubert Humphrey, Orville Freeman, Walter Mondale, and Eugene McCarthy being there to honor the average working person. The turnout was huge because people knew the importance of the labor movement.

Labor unions brought us the middle class. They gave us the chance for our families to have a good life. The loss of union membership has hurt the middle class and the while the service economy might give us brighter and safer jobs, it often does so with lower wages, lack of benefits, and no security. Minnesotans are known for being hard-working and dedicated; in return, they deserve these benefits.

The federal Department of Labor Web site says it better than I can: "It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom and leadership -- the American worker."

I have spent my political career fighting for average Minnesotans. I'm asking you to join me this Labor Day in renewing our commitment to our workers and fighting for good jobs, higher minimum wages, improved benefits, Unemployment Insurance extensions, and related provisions like affordable education and training programs.

Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, is a member of the Minnesota House and is expected to announce his Democratic bid for governor on Monday.