How do Canadians view Labour Day? Most people see it as the last long weekend of the summer.
It’s a chance to relax, regroup and get ready for the busy fall schedule. Unfortunately, many people don’t know the history behind Labour Day. It took many decades of struggle before Labour Day became a national holiday.
The origins of Labour Day began in 1872. Back then many people worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. There was no such thing as employment law, workers compensation, or a weekend.
In March of that same year, the printers union in Toronto wanted a 9-hour work day. But their employers refused to give in to their demands. That month they went on strike.
Public sympathy for the printers was high. In April, 2,000 workers marched through the streets of Toronto in a solidarity march. By the time they reached Queen’s Park, more than 10,000 people joined the demonstration. At the time, this was a tenth of Toronto’s population.
The printing industry started to get scared. Led by publishing magnate George Brown, their employers brought in workers from nearby towns to replace the strikers. They even pressured the government to charge and arrest the strike leaders for criminal conspiracy!
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who was a political opponent of George Brown, saw the benefit of siding with the workers. Macdonald spoke out against Brown’s actions at a public demonstration at City Hall, gaining the support of the workers and embarrassing his rival. Macdonald passed the Trade Union Act, which repealed outdated that old British labour laws that decriminalized unions. The strike leaders were released from jail.
The workers still did not obtain their immediate goals of a shorter work week. In fact, many lost their jobs. But their strike proved that workers could gain the attention of their employers, the public, and most importantly, their political leaders if they worked together. The “Nine-Hour Movement,” as it became known, spread to other Canadian cities and a shorter work week became the primary demand of union workers in the years following the Toronto strike.
The parade that was held in support of the strikers carried over into an annual celebration of worker’s rights and was adopted in cities throughout Canada. The parades demonstrated solidarity, with different unions identified by the colorful banners they carried. In 1894, under mounting pressure from the working class, Prime Minister Sir John Thompson declared Labour Day a national holiday.
Over time, Labour Day strayed from its origins and evolved into a popular holiday. That’s why it’s important to take a minute to think about Canada’s labour pioneers. Their actions laid the foundations for future labour movements and helped employees secure the rights and benefits we all currently enjoy.