Labour Day more than fun and football

Staff ~ The Prince Albert Daily Herald
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It’s the Labour Day weekend and for many Canadians it signifies some key points in the year.

It is the unofficial last weekend of summer, it marks that kids are going back to school, and it means a weekend of great Canadian football rivalries.

However, its roots, in North America at least, go way back to the mid to late 1800s, with the labour movement, right here in Canada, which paved the way for the first Monday in September to be commemorated on both sides of the border as Labour Day.

Yes, similar to Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in Canada before Americans ever did, the origins of Labour Day lie here. With newspapers even.

In 1869, the Toronto Printer’s Union started a petition to reduce their work-week to 58 hours a week. That original request led to a strike two and a half years later in March of 1872. That strike was actually illegal under Canadian law at the time as all union activity was considered illegal.

George Brown, a Liberal politician who served as the prime minister of Ontario and was editor of the Toronto Globe at the time, convinced Toronto police to arrest union leaders with conspiracy and 24 were arrested.

But months later, Sir John A. Macdonald enacted the Trade Union Act which ended union activity being considered illegal in Canada.

Ironically, the Conservative prime minister was the hero of Canadian labour, while the Liberal was the villain. (Brown wasn’t all bad though, he was a vocal critic of slavery in the United States and was a founder of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada).

That spring upheaval was then celebrated by unions in Toronto every spring for years later. The founder of the American Federation of Labour attended one of these parades and was so impressed he organized a similar event in New York City in September, 1882, and was made an official holiday in Oregon in 1887 and was made a federal holiday in 1894. Canada adopted it as a national holiday that same year.

It commemorated a victory for North American labour movements, but came with a cost. Those early pioneers in the Toronto Typographical Union paid dearly as most lost their jobs and many were forced to move away from Toronto.

But they had started the fight for a shorter work-week and better working conditions for employees that is still being waged on some fronts to this very day. It is hard to fathom a 58-hour work-week now, work that was done for a pittance of wage.

The battles between employer and employees these days are typically quite trivial compared to what the earliest working stiffs had to deal with, but they still exist. Labour Day is a day set aside to commemorate the fight that came before us, what it has provided for us today, and that we need to continue looking out for our rights, and the rights of future hard-working folk.

Of course, whether you do that with a parade, a football game, or a last weekend out at the cottage is totally up to you. Those Toronto typographers fought so that you’d have the time to do such things, whatever they may be. 

 

Prince Albert Daily Herald

Organizations: Toronto Globe, Trade Union, Anti-Slavery Society of Canada American Federation of Labour North American Toronto Typographical Union Prince Albert Daily Herald

Geographic location: Toronto, Canada, North America Ontario United States New York City Oregon

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