Today, workers will gather at fairs, festivals and parades across this country to mark Labour Day, or, like many Canadians, you may mark this as just another long weekend.
I do, however, strongly encourage you, wherever you are, to take a moment to pause and remember the origins of Labour Day – a holiday Canadian workers gave the world.
Dating back to 1872, the origins of Labour Day come from the struggles of working people and the demand for fairness. At the time of the industrial revolution, in the late 1700s, unions – or organized labour – were illegal in Canada and across much of the world.
Despite that, workers were starting to organize against the gruelling conditions many were working under – from child labour, to 12 to 16 hour work days. Often the meagre pay didn’t cover the cost of housing and food and workers were being injured or killed on the job at an alarming rate.
In Canada, it was the movement to establish a nine-hour work day and a strike by over 10,000 Toronto Typographical Union members and supporters that got the attention of Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald in April 1872. At that time, union activity was criminal, so many of the union leaders were thrown in jail. Because of the attention this drew, and the momentum from other labour unions across the country, on June 14, 1872, the prime minister passed the Trade Union Act decriminalizing unions.
The strike by the print workers evolved into the “Nine-Hour Movement” which saw other unions marching in protest. This eventually led to annual celebrations commemorating the Toronto parade, that evolved into Labour Day that we know today – established as an official holiday in 1894.
Labour Day is now celebrated around the world at different times. But wherever it is celebrated, the same spirit remains, it’s a day that affirms the dignity and honour of working people everywhere.
Over the past couple of years, workers have had to bear the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic – from our front-line workers, to the many that lost their jobs, to those that had to deal with an ever-changing set of rules and regulations on what it meant to go to work every day. Optimistically, we’re looking ahead to a time where lockdowns and case counts don’t dominate our headlines.
We’ve come a long way since the Toronto printers strike; the challenges change but the necessity to continue to have a strong voice to ensure workers’ rights are protected remain an integral part of our society. Workers have the right to be respected in the workplace regardless of their occupation. Every worker deserves to be paid a family-sustaining wage, get access to benefits and a pension, and go home safely at the end of the day.
On behalf of Canada’s Building Trades Unions, this Labour Day I want to thank the 600,000 skilled trades workers that belong to our 14 affiliated unions, for the work they do, to build the roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, and green construction projects that are critical to Canadians from coast to coast.
Behind the hardhats, are hardworking Canadians that we celebrate this Labour Day.
Value on display. Every day.
Sean Strickland is executive director of Canada’s Building Trades Unions. Send Industry Perspectives Op-Ed comments and column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org