Do we ever stop and wonder why millions of Americans spend Labor Day, the first Monday of September, with friends and family? Whether it’s a last dip before the pools close or grilling burgers at the neighborhood BBQ, for many Labor Day signifies nothing more than the end of summer (or another sale). 

But Labor Day is a moment to celebrate the contributions of the labor movement in our country. Especially now, in the second year of a global pandemic, it’s an opportunity for us to salute the millions of American workers who keep our country going.   

Labor Day was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century, and became a federal holiday in 1894. In a nutshell, workers were fed up with jobs that demanded 12+ hours/7 days a week. In New York City, more than 10,000 workers took to the streets and marched from City Hall to Union Square — America’s first Labor Day parade. With the assistance of organized labor and other union activists, people rallied and protested unsafe working conditions and low wages.  

Organized labor continues to advocate for the marginalized and the voiceless, and to step up when help is needed. For United Way, labor has been a valued partner, always showing up in disaster relief efforts.  We’ve partnered recently to support wildfire relief in Oregon, and flood relief in Iowa

During the global pandemic, United Way and labor are teaming up to provide food relief, COVID-19 testing and vaccination across the country. We’re especially seeking to help health care and frontline workers cope with the pandemic. 

In Los Angeles, Labor Community Services and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO (The LA Fed) have been working to help essential service workers (especially people of color) get COVID-19 vaccinations. With St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, the partners started hosting “Labor of Love” events in February, going to twice a week in the spring. So far, 10,000 people have gotten fully vaccinated. “Our healthcare workers and seniors continue to be among the most vulnerable in our community,” said Armando Olivas, Executive Director of Labor Community Services. “We want to ensure that we’re able to help them get access to the COVID-19 vaccine and food assistance they need.” 

Unfortunately, we recently lost a giant in the labor movement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. A former member of the United Way Worldwide Board of Directors, he was a staunch champion of the 80-year-old United Way and labor partnership. He was a man who was a champion for the rights of working people in the U.S. and across the globe.  

But the future of the labor movement looks bright, as Liz Shuler takes the reins to become the first female President of the national AFL-CIO (which includes 56 unions and 12.5 million members).

Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO President

As she powers forward to fight for working families, I’m proud of the gender equity progress she represents, and excited about her goals to build a modern labor movement that lifts up women and workers of color. 

So please join me in thanking the front-line workers you may encounter this weekend – not just health care workers and educators, but also those in the grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants or bars – for all they do to take care of our society and keep our economy moving.  

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