A Labour of Love: The History of Labour Day in Canada

For most, Labour Day signals the official end of summer and the beginning of the school year, but where did it come from and when did it start? We're breaking it down.
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A Labour of Love: The History of Labour Day in Canada

For most, Labour Day signals the official end of summer and the beginning of the school year, but where did it come from and when did it start? We're breaking it down.
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THE BACKGROUND

This Labour Day weekend, we hope the majority of you are sitting in Muskoka chairs sipping margaritas. (What’s that? It’s only 8am, you say? We’re not ones to judge.)

As the official day most use to mark summer’s last hurrah, the name might come off as somewhat ironic to those who don’t know the history behind Canada’s sacred September holiday. (We sure won’t be doing any labouring this weekend.)

You might have assumed the holiday symbolized the government’s “thank you” to the country’s hard workers, but it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS

A century before Dolly Parton’s song “9 to 5” hit the airwaves in 1980, Canada’s working class regularly clocked in for 12-hour workdays. (Hell to the no.)

Fed up with being taken advantage of, they began demonstrating nationwide in an effort to shorten the workday from 12 to nine hours. This Nine Hour Movement began in Hamilton, Ontario and spread as far east as Halifax, Nova Scotia with echoes heard in many cities in between. It marked an important moment in Canada’s labour history as the first unified protest movement and the first time union and non-union members joined together under Nine Hour Leagues in solidarity of the cause. (Really, the only people the movement didn’t benefit long-term were the bigwig bosses, like George Brown, holed up in their offices smoking cigars.)

The Toronto Typographical Union took up the cause to publicize the workers’ complaints. The Ontario Workman newspaper was founded by J.S. Williams and other printers associated with the TTU. The combination of the newspaper’s distribution and support with the printers’ connections worked to mobilize large numbers of the labour force to protest and demonstrate. (Sir John A. Macdonald was one of Williams’ wingmen.)

In 1869, the TTU sent a petition to employers asking for a 58-hour workweek, but the request was outright denied. On March 25, 1872, after two years of Oliver Twist-esque negotiation, the union decided to strike for their gruel.

Then came a 2,000-strong parade in Toronto in April that grew to 10,000 by the time the demonstration reached Queen’s Park. It was fine and dandy until the employers responded by bringing in replacement workers from small towns. (Mayor John Tory had to get the idea somewhere.)

And, since union activity was considered a criminal offence at the time, George Brown took legal action to have 24 members of the strike committee imprisoned.

Needless to say, the labourers didn’t get what they wanted.

DEAR JOHN

Sir John A. Macdonald is not a popular guy right now (and for good reason), but for Williams, being BFFLs with the prime minister certainly had its perks.

When the Nine Hour leagues started demonstrating across the country, Macdonald worried about a class struggle between the working class and their employers that could lead to untold difficulties in the labour force. Macdonald was able to capitalize on the “villainy” of his Liberal rival George Brown within the movement and began slowly granting concessions to stem the tide.

He thought it would help to mollify the labour class — but, if anything, Canada’s labour workers learned that through unionized demonstrations and protests, they’d gained more than they’d lost.

On June 14, the Trade Unions Act was passed, legalizing and protecting union movements.

SWEET SUCCESS

After 1872, most unions demanded maximum nine-hour work days and 54-hour weeks. The cause gained momentum and even spread into the United States; thus the Toronto printers were pioneers of North America’s movement for shorter working hours.

The success of the Nine Hour Movement led to annual celebrations that continued on well into the 1880s and, after witnessing one of these celebrations in Toronto, an American labour leader was inspired to declare the first American “Labor Day” in New York on September 5, 1882. (The second mouse gets the cheese, it seems.) It wasn’t until July 1894 that the Canadian government under Prime Minister John Thompson made Labour Day an official annual holiday.

To this day, Labour Day is globally hailed as “the holiday [that] Canada gave the world.” (You’re welcome.) Unions continue to organize public picnics and parades, while non-union members enjoy the day off during the last weekend of summer and kids dread look forward to the start of a new school year.

We don’t know about you, but we’ll be working it with a last dive off the dock before hypothermic temperatures creep in.


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