Labor Day Reminds Us What We’re Fighting For

As Labor Day approaches, many Americans are looking forward to fun and relaxation over the long holiday weekend — perhaps taking a trip, hosting a barbecue or shopping the clearance sales. But Labor Day is more than an extra day off marking the unofficial end of summer. For anyone who works for a living, it’s an important reminder that the wages, benefits and legal protections we take for granted didn’t always exist, but had to be fought for and protected through decades of collective action. With unions seemingly making a resurgence in relevance and influence during this year’s “hot labor summer,” their role in securing rights and fair compensation for employees is clearer than ever. This Labor Day, LAAPOA encourages you to keep in mind the many achievements of America’s working people as we continue to advocate for safety, equity and respect for our members and our profession.

A Holiday Dedicated to Workers

The roots of Labor Day go back to the late 19th century, the peak of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S., as more and more Americans began working in manufacturing jobs rather than agriculture. The average worker — including children as young as 5 or 6 — toiled 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, to earn a bare living, often performing physically demanding tasks under hazardous conditions. While labor unions had existed in the U.S. for nearly a century, they grew larger and more vocal during this period, organizing rallies and strikes to protest poor treatment and push for improvements.

While it’s difficult to trace the foundation of Labor Day to any one person, 1882 appears to be the pivotal year the idea took hold. That’s when Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, proposed a “general holiday for the laboring classes” to recognize the people “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Recent research has found that machinist Matthew Maguire also made a similar suggestion that year while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Both men were in attendance on September 5, when an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 working men and women took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City in an event organized by the Central Labor Union — the first Labor Day parade in American history.

Labor activists continued efforts to establish a holiday honoring workers’ valuable contributions to the country’s strength and prosperity. In 1887 Oregon became the first state to adopt the idea, followed by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York later that year. By 1894, 26 more states had followed suit and Congress passed an act establishing the first Monday in September as a national holiday, which was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland on June 28.

Advocating for Fair Treatment

Enshrining Labor Day as a legal holiday was a symbolic victory that celebrated the strength and solidarity of the labor movement, but unions didn’t stop there. Over the ensuing years, they successfully pressed for crucial regulations to protect workers, including limits on child labor, the establishment of a minimum wage, a shorter workweek, overtime pay, sick pay and paid time off — all of which now seem like a basic given for most modern employees but took generations of advocacy to achieve.

By the beginning of the 21st century, it was common wisdom that American unions were in decline. Yet lately the movement has seemed re-energized, with national news reports of more workers unionizing at corporations like Starbucks and Amazon, and many high-profile strikes making headlines. In August 2022, a Gallup poll reported that 71% of Americans approved of labor unions, the highest level recorded since 1965.

This year brought what many are calling the “hot labor summer” of increased union activity and media attention, and Los Angeles appears to be ground zero. The 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) called a strike on May 2, followed on July 2 by more than 15,000 hotel workers represented by Unite Here Local 11, 60,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) on July 14 and more than 11,000 City of Los Angeles workers belonging to SEIU Local 721 who held a 24-hour work stoppage on August 8 that included picketing at LAX. Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker reports that 276,340 California workers have participated in strikes so far this year, compared with 92,527 in 2022 and 64,849 in 2021.  

Experts say what makes these actions particularly remarkable is the solidarity demonstrated between labor groups spanning seemingly disparate social classes. While some of the unions are traditionally blue-collar while others are perceived as more white-collar, they are united in their goal of fighting for living wages in an increasingly unaffordable city and state. And although it’s too soon to tell whether the strikes will result in better contracts, there is no doubt they’re delivering a strong message to employers and the public.

LAAPOA Fights for Our Members

While law enforcement associations cannot strike, we have plenty in common with other labor groups, particularly our fellow public employees, whose rights and benefits have repeatedly come under attack. Anti-police activists may try to divide and conquer by portraying law enforcement associations as nefarious forces standing in the way of reform, but just like other labor unions, our primary charge is to bargain with employers to secure fair compensation and benefits for our members; protect employees from retaliation, unjust discipline and other abuses of power; and advocate for safe working conditions and other common causes.

And LAAPOA takes those responsibilities seriously. The victories we’ve achieved on behalf of our members and the benefits we and our statewide partners at PORAC provide are too plentiful to list here but include political advocacy, legal defense, successful contract negotiations, public relations and more. LAAPOA remains dedicated to fighting for equity in wages, benefits, equipment, training and working conditions for our members, and we have put Los Angeles leaders on notice that we will not back down from that fight.

“In honor of this coming Labor Day, I want to remind all our members of the importance of union representation to safeguard their rights, compensation, safety and professionalism,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain says. “There is real strength in numbers, and our numbers continue to grow greater. Thank you for your support and trust in LAAPOA as we take on the enormous challenges facing our peace officers. I urge our agency and city leadership, local and state politicians, and the general public to recognize the vital work being done by all of our nation’s dedicated workers and labor groups, but especially the first responders who risk their lives every day — including holidays — to protect and serve. Labor Day is a celebration of what can be accomplished by working together, and a reminder that there is always more work to be done. LAAPOA will never stop working to ensure that our members receive pay and benefits equal to other peace officers in this city, commensurate with their high level of training, steadfast service and indispensable mission of keeping our communities safe.”