September 6, 2021 Labour Day

Published by Victor Barr on

It was Labour Day today. A day that celebrates the working man. I know that it is for the working woman as well, but when it first was celebrated in 1894, working women didn’t exist in the minds of those that created it. 

In the last 127 years, we have come a long way. 

Back in the latter part of the eighteenth-century workers were very much oppressed by their employers. Women even more than men. The labour movement began its rise with the nine-hour movement, a bid by workers to reduce the workday from twelve hours(!) to nine. The employees of the Toronto Typographical Union took up the cause in 1869 asking the workweek be shortened to 58 hours. Now, it is hard to believe that they wanted to shorten the workweek to 58 hours. Today’s workers have it good with a 40-hour workweek. But in those days the union was a leader in the industrial world advocating for a shorter workweek. Their bosses, the owners of the printing shops and especially George Brown of The Globe baulked at the idea.

By 1872 the battle cry had been taken up and on the 25th of March, the printers went on strike. On 15 April, a demonstration was held to show solidarity among the workers of Toronto. A parade of some 2,000 workers marched through the city, headed by marching bands. By the time the parade reached Queen’s Park, the sympathetic crowd had grown to 10,000. 

The employers fought back. George Brown and his cohorts sued and called the strike a “conspiracy” and illegal. And indeed it was illegal, in 1792 a law was enacted that made union activity a criminal offense. The police swooped in and arrested twenty-four of the organizers of the strike.

George Brown had some powerful enemy’s in political circles, including then Prime Minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald. Macdonald came to the rescue of the imprisoned men and  14 June passed the Trade Unions Act, which legalized and protected union activity. Macdonald’s move not only embarrassed his rival Brown but also earned him the enduring support of the working class. Today, Macdonald is being vilified for his participation in residential schools, but history shows that he did many good things for our great nation.

After 1872, most unions included a 9 hour day and a 54-hour workweek in their negotiations. The printers’ brave stand against their employers succeeded in reducing the workday and recognized workers rights throughout Canada. In the United States, a movement had begun to reduce the workday even further to 8 hours. The theory was 8 hours for work, 8 hours for leisure, and 8 hours for rest. Thus began the current 8-hour workday. 

The legacy of the strike and the march began a new labour movement. Parades and marches were held in major cities across the country. In the United States, American labour leader Peter J. McGuire witnessed one of these labour festivals in Toronto. Inspired, he returned to New York and organized the first American “labor day” on September 5th of the same year. 

Throughout the 1880s, pressure built in Canada to declare a national labour holiday, and on July 23, 1894, the government of Prime Minister John Thompson passed a law making Labour Day the first Monday in September. In Winnipeg that year a huge parade formed that stretched over five kilometres. Labour Day celebrations quickly spread across Canada and the continent.

Here we are 127 years later and the world is a very different place. Labour day is no longer about workers and their rights, it is about families and their rest times. It is about the last long weekend of summer and a time to prepare for returning to school. The labour issues we face now have reversed in the last century to a situation where there is a labour shortage. Employers are now begging for workers, and many capable workers sit on the sidelines, their pockets filled with government handouts. 

The balance has shifted. At the same time, Corporations continue to take advantage of the men and women they employ. There needs to be a real balance; when the CEO of a corporation makes over 1000 times what the average employee makes, something eventually will have to give. 

Take a moment today to celebrate and remember those that fought for the rights of workers over a hundred twenty-five years ago.

Happy Labour day. 


*Source The Canadian Encyclopedia.*

Categories: Daily Journal


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