When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis in April 1968, it was at the request of Memphis Sanitation Workers who were on strike. They were demanding higher pay, more benefits, safer working conditions and better equipment. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated. The civil rights leader died working on behalf of Black trash collectors.
It was during the 2020 pandemic that the words “essential worker” became commonplace. The term described those who were needed to keep America’s infrastructure from crumbling. So, while some worked from the comfort of their homes and conducted Zoom meetings in their pajamas, many did not have that option. They had two choices: risk their lives or lose their jobs. And many did lose their lives, including the bus driver in Detroit, the grandmother at the meat factory in Georgia, the grocery store clerk in Maryland.
In 1894 the federal government designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Labor activists pushed for a holiday that would celebrate “the social and economic achievements of American workers.” Today, Labor Day recognizes “the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being.”
For too long, we took our essential workers for granted until we experienced life without them. Now, parents appreciate teachers more and we no longer assume there will be toilet paper in Target. During the pandemic, we continued to receive mail, grocery stores remained open, and most could still count on some kind of public transportation in operation.
This holiday weekend, Capital & Main pays homage to our American workers with a special Labor Day package. Check out senior writer Jessica Goodheart’s Q&A with Eyal Press, author of the new book Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America. Press notes that “we ended up delegating the dirty work in our society to people with fewer choices and opportunities.” And contributing editor Marcus Baram writes about how higher wages for low income workers have been undercut by rising inflation. Baram’s piece reveals that “in 2020, the earnings of CEOs at the largest public companies were on average 351 times as much as that of the typical worker in their industry.”
It is a telling statistic about our society.
Below we feature a few of our essential workers in a moving photo essay that reminds us of their contributions to America. Take a look.
A farmworker carries a box of broccoli in a field on January 22, 2021 in Calexico, California. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
A NJ Transit bus driver is seen wearing a mask on April 27, 2020 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)
Sous-chef Francisco Lopez prepares food for customers at the Buya restaurant on March 05, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Letter Carrier Connie Cruz delivers mail on October 8, 2020 in Salem, Oregon. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
A worker sweeps garbage into a trash pit at Recology on April 2, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Workers at ShopRite supermarket restock food on April 24, 2020 in Plainview, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Butchers at Old Fashion Country Butcher process meat as they work to meet increased demand due to COVID-19 related shortages on May 21, 2020 in Santa Paula, California. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Emergency Room nurses wear protective gear at the Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital on August 18, 2021. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Construction workers install a roof at an apartment complex on May 27, 2020 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
A teacher works with a student with a plexiglass shield dividing them at Freedom Preparatory Academy on February 10, 2021 in Provo, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
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