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The Origin of Labour Day – and its Canadian Roots

August 21, 2018
IBEW Local 353 electricians in Labour Day parade

Many of the rights we take for granted – the eight hour work day, paid vacations, even weekends – had to be fought for and won by working families.

IBEW Local 353 electricians in Labour Day paradeMost people see the first Monday in September as just another day off before the kids go back to school. But Labour Day is really a day of celebration and remembrance.

The benefits we enjoy today were not handed out willingingly. Everyday men and women put their jobs and their lives on the line to win them.

Over the course of more than hundred and fifty years, society was transformed from one in which only the lives of the rich and powerful mattered. Common ground was found, reasonable health and safety standards established, and the middle class created.
Today, as the political climate changes, these standards are in jeopardy. Political attitudes benefitting the wealthiest few are gaining popularity in some circles. The labour movement and its ongoing history have become more important than ever.

IBEW Local 353 electricians in Labour Day parade

IBEW Local 353 electricians and their families march on Labour Day in Toronto.

Key Moments in the Labour Movement

Setting the Stage

The Labour Movement was born out of the mills, workhouses, mines, and construction sites of the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in the year 1760 in Britain, the Industrial Revolution soon spread to other Western countries.

During that time, the agricultural practices of Western society were being transformed by advances in science and technology, especially steam power. As landowners expelled tenant farmers and machinery replaced traditional craftspeople, displaced workers moved to the cities seeking employment.

Those workers were able to find employment, but only at great personal cost. Conditions in the factories, mines, and construction sites in the 1800s were extremely dangerous. Accidents were common, hours were long (generally 12 – 16 hours), and wages were usually insufficient for food and housing. Most children worked instead of going to school.

Life expectancy for workers was short. In 1840, for example, Liverpool factory workers had a life expectancy of 15 years. In the United States and Canada, conditions weren’t much better. While overall average life expectancy for society rose thanks to advancements in medicine and cleaner water supplies, accidents and the effects of unhealthy work environments continued to disproportionately affect the working class.

Workers Begin the Fight for Better Conditions

Workers were starting to organize almost as soon as the Industrial Revolution began, and the wealthier classes initially fought back with legislation. In Britain, for example, the Combination Act of 1799 outlawed collective bargaining and trade unions.
In spite of legislation, however, conditions were bad enough to give rise to strikes and other protest actions. These were not isolated actions of a discontented few: a general strike in Scotland in 1820, for example, involved 60,000 people.
While there was some sympathy for the plight of workers, reprisals were often harsh. Owners, police, and sometimes the military used force of arms to put down revolts. Lives were lost on all sides, but it was typically protesters who experienced the worst of the violence.

The Labour Movement is not the same thing as socialism, even though there is an overlap of values.

  • The goal of socialism is to do away with capitalism entirely.
  • The Labour Movement doesn’t want to get rid of capitalism, just ensure that wages are fair, hours are reasonable, and safety standards are in place.

Trade unionists in European countries were sometimes executed, but at other times sentenced to “transportation” to the colonies. By the 1840s, workers from Germany and the UK were living in Canada and the United States and taking preliminary steps towards organizing in their new homes.
In Canada, some of the earliest trade unions were in existence by 1814 in the Maritimes. Our labour movement history was closely intertwined with that of Britain in the early 1800s, as immigrants brought their ideas as well as their skills. Later on in the 1800s, our unions also formed close ties with union organizations in the United States.

The Canadian Roots of Labour Day Parades

In Canada the April 14, 1872, parade by over 10,000 striking Toronto Typographical Union members and their supporters (a tenth of the Toronto population at that time) is known as one of the key events that led to the creation of Labour Day.

After the arrest of the leaders of the Typographical Union, seven unions in Ottawa marched in protest on September 3, 1872.
Every spring thereafter, labour unions paraded to commemorate the Toronto parade. The idea took hold and unions were holding annual parades to celebrate workers’ rights in cities across the country.

While there were rallies, strikes, and other protests in the US, labour parades were not held in the US until 1882. In that year, one of the founders of the American Federation of Labour, Peter J. McGuire, was asked to speak at a labour event in July. When he returned to the US, he organized a similar parade in New York City on September 5, 1882.
For many years after the 1882 parade, several organizations called for an official day to celebrate the labour movement. May 1 (a traditional holiday in Europe known as May Day), was initially a strongest candidate. It was partially chosen to commemorate the tragic Haymarket Affair of May 4, 1886, and was thereafter known as International Workers’ Day.
US President Grover Cleveland, however, was concerned that holding Labour Day on May 1 would keep the memory of Haymarket alive, and strengthen the socialist and anarchist movement.

He backed the September date, and on June 28, 1894 the first Monday in September became Labour Day in the US.
In Canada, a September Labour Day became an official holiday by decree of Prime Minister Sir John Thompson on July 23, 1894.

Key Victories

Here are some important milestones in Canadian labour history:

  1. Unions were decriminalized in Canada when Prime Minister John A. MacDonald passed the Trade Union Act in 1872, after the parade by the Toronto Printers Union mentioned above.
  2. The eight-hour work day was first called for in Britain by Robert Owen in 1810. The American Federation of Labour officially passed their resolution calling for an eight-hour work day on May 1, 1885. The struggle for a shorter work day began with the Nine Hour Movement in 1872, and by 1890, the Federation of Labour was calling for an eight-hour day in Canada. In the US, the Ford Motor Company implemented the eight hour day in 1914, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (part of the New Deal) gave workers in many industries the eight-hour day, although a few groups had won an eight-hour day as early as 1842. In Canada, it seems to vary by province. Ontario’s Hours of Work and Vacations With Pay Act of 1944 set maximum hours of work at 8 hours a day in some industries.
  3. Minimum wages were first implemented for women with the Minimum Wage Act of 1920.
  4. Child labour laws varied by province. Restrictions on what jobs children could do were implemented in some provinces early on. For example, in 1873 children couldn’t work in mines in Nova Scotia, with similar legislation following in BC in 1877. By the mid-1920s all provinces had legislation in place requiring children to attend school until the age of 14. By 1929 all provinces specifically excluded children from working in factories and mines.
  5. The weekend. Western workers originally had only one official day off: Sunday. It seems however, that many were skipping work Mondays informally if they could get away with it. In the US and Canada, many employers officially cut their work schedules to five days during the Depression. Again, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 for the US. Canada and Britain followed suit in 1955.
  6. Unemployment insurance. In Canada, we won unemployment insurance in 1940 (behind almost every other Western country).
  7. Safety Standards. Ontario’s Industrial Safety Act of 1964 enshrined safety standards after the Hogg’s Hollow Disaster of March 17, 1960, in which five Italian Canadian workers were killed when the a fire broke out in the tunnel they were working on and it collapsed. The Act was followed by the Canada Labour (Safety) Code of 1966 -1967.
  8. Paid maternity leave has only been law in Canada since 1971.

Labour Day – Not Just Another Holiday

This Labour Day, consider going downtown to cheer on the unions and other workers’ groups who make the time to march. If you can’t do that, take a moment of silence to thank those who fought for the rights you enjoy.
One thing is clear: as the political climate becomes more polarized, the history of the labour movement is far from over.

Image credits:

  • Both images courtesy IBEW Local 353, Toronto

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