Honouring Labour Day

Posted in: Holidays | Posted by Rebecca Ingram on August 30, 2018

Although observed on May 1st in most countries around the world, the first Monday in September is recognized as Labour Day in Canada and the USA. It is a statutory holiday commonly associated with the end of summer, marking the last long weekend of the season and signalling the day before school starts. Over the years, however, the origins of the Labour Day, what it means, and why it’s celebrated have all but been forgotten.

Labour Day is an annual holiday celebrating the achievements of workers and can be traced to the labour unrest of the late 1800’s, the dawn of the industrial revolution, and the birth of unions. Perhaps one of the most significant developments from this period was the 8 hour day movement, which advocated eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation, and eight hours of rest per day — a concept that should be revisited more often in this day and age.

How did it begin?

In Canada, it began as a massive working-class demonstration in Toronto triggered by the rapidly and dramatically changing economic and industrialized landscape. Automated machinery began to replace manual labour and the special skills offered by workers were no longer as valuable or efficient. Complaints about long working hours, unsafe working conditions and low working wages generally resulted in job loss or demotion. Unions were illegal in Canada because archaic British labour laws were still in effect at the time, so workers were subject to the authority of their employers or forced to find work elsewhere.

It took the Toronto Typographical Union, which had been lobbying for more than three years for a shorter work week, to threaten to go on strike if their demands were not met that pushed the envelope. Finally, on March 25, 1872 – after repeatedly being ignored – the printers went on strike. The publishing industry in Toronto was crippled and employers were forced to take action by hiring workers from nearby towns to replace the striking printers. George Brown, founder of the Toronto Globe (now known as The Globe & Mail) even took legal action to stop the strike by having strike leaders arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy.

In the meantime, the striking printers were gaining support from the Toronto Trades Assembly’s (TTA) 27 unions and in a show of solidarity, a group of more than 2000 members started marching through the streets of Toronto on April 14, 1872. By the time the march reached Queen’s Park, the throng had grown to more than 10,000 supporters – one-tenth of the city’s population at the time.

Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, recognized the political benefit in siding with the striking printers and spoke out against the actions of George Brown at a public demonstration. He went on to release strike leaders from jail and passed the Trade Union Act which repealed the outdated British anti-union laws and decriminalized unions across Canada. Following this, a parade was held by the Toronto Trades and Labour Council (successor to the TTA) every spring to celebrate workers’ rights and eventually it spread to other Canadian cities.

The passing of an official holiday

In July 1882, the co-founder of the American Federation of Labour was asked to speak at a labour festival in Toronto. Upon returning to the United States, he helped organize a similar parade in New York City on September 5th, of that year, which was then adopted as an annual event. In 1894, Labour Day was declared an official holiday in Canada, and the United States, to be celebrated on the first Monday of September.

Since that time, the focus of Labour Day has strayed from the parades and picnics organized by unions to celebrate workers’ rights and has evolved into a popular holiday marking the last long weekend of summer. Labour Day traditions vary across Canada from rallies and parades in Atlantic Canada to the Labour Day Classic football games pitting Canadian city against Canadian city. Throughout Canada, most businesses – including the retail sector – are closed and it is a day of rest, relaxation and recreation, however, there are still areas like essential services, food services and the entertainment sectors that remain open and operating.

So on Monday, while you celebrate the long weekend take a moment to remember the Canadian Labour pioneers, who put themselves out there to improve your working conditions and salute those workers that are on the job today to ensure your safety and enjoyment of this holiday.

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