WHITEHORSE: For many of us, the Labour Day weekend is a significant marker in the calendar year. It’s the last long weekend of the summer and in many ways, represents the summers end. However, it also bears a greater importance, serving as a reminder of the historic struggles faced by workers, the victories hard won and the sacrifices made along the way.
Canadians can thank members of the Toronto Printer’s Union, circa 1869, who petitioned their employer to reduce their hours and implement a standard 58 hour work week. Their employer, George Brown called the unions demand “absurd” and “unreasonable.” After three years of struggle, the Printers Union went on strike in support of a shorter working week in March of 1872.
Public support for the striking TPU was high and a parade of 10,000 working people marched with them in solidarity through the streets of Toronto. The response by Mr. Brown was to bring in scab workers and file suit against the union, calling their strike a conspiracy, while 24 members of the strike committee were imprisoned under the charge. The government of the day, lead by Sir John A. Macdonald were quick to score a political victory in support of the workers. In June of that year, they passed the Trade Union Act, legalizing union activity and freeing the imprisoned strike committee. Following the 1872 strike of the TPU, nearly all union demands included the 58 hour work week (which has since been further reduced to 40 hours, thanks to collective union efforts).
In addition to the shorter work week, the actions of the TPU also poured the foundations for what would become the Labour Day National Holiday. The success of the strike was celebrated annually in Toronto and during one such celebration, American labour activist Peter J. Mcguire was inspired to hold his own ‘labour day’ celebrations on September the 5th in his hometown of New York City. After more than a decade of pressure, in 1894, the government of Sir John Thompson declared Labour Day to be national holiday. Parades in celebration of the new holiday and in support of labour sprung up across the country, immortalizing the historic struggles of the Toronto Printers Union that ultimately benefitted workers nationwide.
So whether you’re spending the holidays out of town, or just relaxing in the yard, take a few moments to reflect on the history of working people in Canada. Think about just how far we have come, and how many struggles lay ahead.
Yukon Federation of Labour