I have an occasional series on this site that I’ve titled It’s a Fact, Eh?. The series looks to various facts related to the great country that I live in. Today I want to extend that series to Labor Day (or Labour Day, if you’re up here in Canada), because if you’ve got the day off, you’ve got Canada to thank.
Working conditions near the end of the 19th century, whether in Canada or the United States, were very different from what they are today. The 40-hour work week was unheard of. Instead, many laborers were expected to work close to double that; the law offered them few rights and very little protection. Needless to say, resistance was growing.
In 1869 the Toronto Printer’s Union forwarded a petition to their employers, asking for a reduction in the work week to a “mere” 58 hours–this was at a time when most printers and other laborers were expected to work 12 hours per day, 6 days a week. The request was immediately denied by the owners of the printing shops. Three years later the request had turned to a demand, but it was still denied, and so the printers went on strike. The strike spawned a parade with 2000 workers marching through Toronto to the site of the provincial parliament. By the time it had arrived there, the crowd had swelled to closer to 10,000. Resistance was growing.
At that time union activity was technically illegal and the 24 men who headed up the strike committee were imprisoned. However, Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was watching from afar and was eager to score some political points. He quickly passed a Trade Union Act, allowing and protecting union activity, which, not coincidentally, gained him a great deal of popularity with the working class. While many of the striking laborers were immediately punished by their employers, unions soon began to dominate the trade and soon all unions were demanding the 54-hour work week. This was a couple of decades before unions in other large cities in North America began to make similar demands. So here was the first legacy from Toronto’s labor movement–shorter, more reasonable, work weeks, first in Toronto but then across the continent.
There was another lasting legacy from this movement–Labor Day. Every year the unions set aside a day for a celebration that would mark the occasion. Parades would be held to honor the marches that had been an integral part of the legalization of trade unions in Canada. In 1882 an American labor leader named Peter McGuire witnessed one of these festivals, having been asked to speak at just such an event in Toronto. He decided to implement the same thing in New York City and chose September 5 as the annual date.
Labor Day gained traction on both sides of the border and it was declared a national holiday in both Canada and the United States in 1894.
Since then many traditions have arisen around the day. It is the symbolic end of summer and, at least around here, the return to normal life after a long summer. It is traditionally the last day that a person can wear white and be considered fashionable. It is the last day of summer vacation, which means that tomorrow is the day that Canadian children will return to their schools. And at least in Toronto, it is still the occasion of a labor parade.
So as you enjoy your day off, and as you look forward to fall, whether you believe in unions or despise them, at least know that you owe this day off to Canada. You’re welcome.