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History of Labour Day


Labour Day is one of Canada's most successful exports.
According to popular history, campaigns by printers in Ottawa and Toronto in the 1860s and '70s for a nine-hour work day were the spark that led to wider acceptance of the union movement in Canada, a shorter workday and, eventually, the creation of Labour Day celebrations in Canada and the United States.
A good source of information on Labour Day history is the Canadian Encyclopedia, which begins its explanation by telling us the "Nine-Hour Movement" began in Hamilton, Ont., and spread to Toronto, among other cities, where its demands were taken up by the Toronto Typographical Union.
In 1869, the union sent a petition to employers requesting a reduction in weekly hours to 58. The request was refused by the owners of the printing shops, most vehemently by George Brown of the Globe. (Up to 12-hour workdays and six-day work weeks were common in those days.)
By 1872, the union threatened to strike. The employers refused to give ground and, on March 25, 1872, the printers went on strike.
On April 14, 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 two marching bands. By the time that the parade reached Queen's Park, the sympathetic crowd had grown to 10,000.
The employers fought the strikers by bringing in replacement workers from small towns. Brown sued the union and, police, using a 1792 law that made union membership illegal, arrested and jailed the 24 members of the strike committee.
Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, Brown's chief political rival, however, had been watching the Nine-Hour Movement with sympathy.
In Ottawa, he spoke to a crowd of union demonstrators, promising to wipe the "barbarous laws" restricting labour from the books. Macdonald then came to the rescue of the imprisoned men, said the encyclopedia.
On June 14, the Macdonald government passed a Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected union activity.
Many strikers lost their jobs and were forced to leave Toronto. But their sacrifices had a long-term impacts. After 1872, almost all union demands, in both Canada and the United States, included a 54-hour week.
The parades held in support of the Nine-Hour Movement and the printers' strike led to an annual celebration. On July 22, 1882, American labour leader Peter J. McGuire attended one of these labour festivals in Toronto. Inspired, he returned to New York and organized the first American "labour day" on Sept. 5 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 Sir John Thompson passed a law declaring the first Monday of September as Labour Day.
In the United States, Oregon was the first state to make it a holiday in 1887. By the time it became a federal holiday in 1894, 30 states officially celebrated Labor Day, according to Wikipedia. In Europe Labour Day, or May Day, has been celebrated since 1889 on May 1.

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