More Than Just a Day Off
/ Author: Eric Nederlof
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More Than Just a Day Off

Labour Day is a time to remember the great strides that have been made—and continue to be made—in Canada’s workplaces

By Eric Nederlof, Solidarity and Supporter Local Manager

Labour Day is a day of celebration and a time to remember the gains made by the labour movement that have improved the lives of the working class. Standards, such as laws against child labour, scheduled days off (i.e., weekends), eight-hour workdays, minimum wage, paid overtime, breaks during work hours, paid vacations and holidays, workplace safety standards, and many other improvements are now taken in stride in Canada as obvious human rights. Today, for many, little thought is given as to how or why we celebrate Labour Day and it is seen as just another long weekend and a good way to end the summer.

However, these rights and privileges were hard-won by regular, everyday men and women who put their jobs, freedom, and even their lives on the line to gain them. Many of these benefits are still not available in much of the rest of the world. We should appreciate that Canada is not that far removed—both geographically and by time—from deplorable working conditions that many must still endure.

A History Lesson

The labour movement was born out of the Industrial Revolution, which started in Britain in the late 18th century and spread to the rest of Europe before moving to North America.

Workplaces and agricultural practices were transformed by advances in science and technology. Displaced people flocked to cities for work, often finding it at great personal cost, as conditions in construction, mining, and manufacturing were very dangerous. Accidents were common, hours were long, and wages were usually insufficient to pay for adequate food and housing. Many children worked instead of going to school so their families could survive.

Canada was also changing rapidly alongside these trends as it blossomed into its own country. Immigration was increasing, cities were growing, and industrialization was drastically altering the economy and workforce.

These hard conditions led people from very different ideological (both religious and political) persuasions to put aside those differences and join forces to advocate for change for the common good. This labour movement encompassed trade unionism, but that was not the extent of it. There was an overlap of some values and common causes, but not all of them came from the same ideological root.

Big Changes in Canada

In 1872, a major effort by printers in Toronto to enshrine a nine-hour workday culminated in a strike. However, far more than just the printers ended up demonstrating, and around 10,000 people (representing a quarter of Toronto’s population at the time) showed up at Queen’s Park. In this era, union activity was a criminal offense, and strike leaders were arrested and jailed.

The prime minister at the time, Sir John A. Macdonald, recognized the cultural mood of the times and the unity of the entire labour movement. This issue served as the lynchpin to force change, and Macdonald ultimately sided with the working-class people of the country. In June of that year, parliament passed the Trade Unions Act, which legalized and protected union activity.

Beginning in 1882, Canadian labour organizations began holding annual celebrations, parades, and marches on the first Monday of September. In 1894, Prime Minister John Thompson declared the day as an official holiday called Labour Day. The U.S. also decreed their first Monday in September as Labour Day in 1894. Most other countries around the world that have a Labour Day holiday celebrate it on May 1 (often known as May Day).

Labour Day Today

So, let’s enjoy Labour Day by respecting the benefits and rights it represents, supporting productive labour relations efforts, and advocating for vulnerable people who continue to be exploited and abused around the world. Let us also celebrate what we have here in Canada because of the work of those who came before us, who took the necessary risks and put aside ideological differences to unite and improve life for themselves and for generations of Canadian families to come.

Happy Labour Day!

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