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An open letter to the Honorable Bruce Rauner on this, his first Labor Day as Governor of the great state of Illinois

Dear Governor Rauner,

I am a high school English teacher and have been a professional educator for the bulk of my adulthood. Currently, I’m on leave from teaching to serve as president of my state union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers. While we have never met or even spoken, that hasn't stopped you from calling me names in the press, like a "corrupt union boss," whatever that means. As I said, I'm a high school English teacher. I’m also a resident of the state you now lead and have noticed your ceaseless attacks on labor and working people.

Please forgive my impertinence in writing to you and assuming that you know very little about Labor Day, but as a teacher it's my inclination to want to educate and uplift, and the events of the day suggest that you may have a limited understanding of work and the nature of this national holiday.

Don’t feel too badly: you are certainly not alone. Most Americans are not in labor unions and fewer people understand the history and value of unions. It was the union movement that agitated for a five-day, 40-hour work week, the weekend, fair wages, a minimum wage, the right to organize, and equal pay for women and men, not to mention nearly every workplace safety protection on the books. And far more.

Labor Day itself is a federal holiday and working people treat it more or less like the end of summer. We get a three-day weekend! What will we do? Well, most public schools have started back up here in Illinois, so there are a lot of athletic and extracurricular events going on. My daughter had her first high school cross-country meet. Her unionized teachers and coaches did a fantastic job running a large event and spent most of the day with the kids.

Like many people, those teachers worked over the holiday. Some folks get no time off at all. Low wage jobs in the fast food industry, for instance, pay poorly (not enough even to live on) and don’t provide any paid time off. So, while it’s a holiday, many people still have to work. People lucky enough to be unionized might get time-and-a-half for having to work while people like you, Governor, get to rest. (I noticed you had no public events scheduled over the weekend).

As we move up the economic ladder, if that’s still possible, you’ll notice that people with solidly middle-class jobs might be off, enjoying picnics and barbeques with friends and family. Travel north and south along the lakefront in Chicago, and you’ll see a wonderful panorama of people of all stations, colors, ethnicities, gathering, playing soccer, having family picnics, and the like. I recommend you visit and talk to them. Many are struggling to make ends meet. They enjoy things like beer and hot dogs, ribs, chips, homemade salads. Some cart their grills to the park. It’s not an expensive proposition, but that’s why people do it—it’s inexpensive fun!

One reason people celebrate modestly is because they are trying to save money. If they have kids in college, they are really interested in saving money. A year of undergraduate education could easily cost half or more of a teacher’s yearly salary. It’s nearly unaffordable. It might only amount to one one-thousandth of a percent of your annual income, but trust me—it’s a lot for the rest of us.

Some towns all over Illinois still have Labor Day parades, God bless ‘em. You may have even walked in one when you were campaigning. Politicians often walk in them to show they can connect with ordinary people and labor. Some politicians genuinely do care for us; I could introduce you to a few, if you’d like. You’ll also see unions marching in the parade. In addition to teachers, nurses, electricians, masons, carpenters, and autoworkers, some of the most popular groups will be the police and firefighters. They’re in unions, too, by the way.

I can’t really guess what the very rich do over Labor Day. I don’t begrudge you your wealth or your rest, but as an English teacher, I can’t help recommending some Labor Day reading for you.

I always find myself turning to the much-missed Studs Terkel, the man my own teacher, Anna Deavere Smith, called the “great curator of American life.” He has a wonderful book called Working that might help you appreciate what average people do for a living. Though I might recommend you read his Hard Times even more right now. It’s an oral history of the Great Depression, and some of the suffering that workers faced in those times remind me of today, though the gap between the very rich and everyone else is actually greater now than it was then.

Mr. Governor, I appreciate your time, and hope you have a learned a bit about how the vast majority of us in Illinois spend this weekend. I’ll leave you with a paraphrase of a fun Randy Newman song: Mr. Governor, have mercy on the working man and woman.

Happy Labor Day.




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