On September 7th, 2015, workers throughout Canada will be celebrating Labour Day, a national holiday considered by many to be one of Canada’s most important. Workers across the country will be participating in BBQs, marching in parades, enjoying family events and celebrating the day with friends and family.
Tied closely to Canada’s history, the labour movement has been an integral part of creating the lifestyle of the middle class that most in modern day Canada have come to expect and enjoy. However, life in Canada in the 19th century was not so easy.
With the rise of industrial capitalism and the lure of work, many workers left their farms to find employment in manufacturing, resource extraction or construction. Not all was as good as was promised. Wage exploitation, unsafe and deplorable working conditions, long hours, child labour, job insecurity resulted in workers organising into small unions to protest the employers, but at that time, the government considered unions to be illegal. Some protests became violent clashes with some employers utilizing the local militia to arrest many workers.
This did not stop workers, both within unions and non-union from holding protests for better working conditions. They started to gather in larger groups and created ties with unions in Britain and the US. In 1872, workers in Montreal and Ontario industrial towns rallied to support the nine-hour movement, seeking to shorten workdays from 12 hours to 9 hours, with over 1500 workers walking through the streets. Soon after, the Toronto Typographical Union marched through Toronto’s streets to Queen’s Park, collecting other unions and supporters to total over 10,000 workers.
While observing the strike, Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. MacDonald became aware of the political influence that the workers carried and introduced the Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected unions in Canada.
Known later as the “Nine-Hour Movement”, the historical printer’s strike led to Prime Minister John Thompson declaring Labour Day a national holiday.
While the fight to end precarious work, and improve working conditions for all workers continues, Labour Day remains a reminder and celebration of the power of workers in unions, striving to retain and improve Canada’s middle class.
Happy Labour Day from the Yukon Federation of Labour