There’s perhaps no other weekend that elicits such mixed feelings as Labour Day. On one hand, it’s a day off and a perfect long weekend to head to the cottage. On the other, it is the harbinger of the end of summer, back to school, the last day we can wear white, and the unofficial end of vacation season.
But, to put our end-of-summer woes into perspective, the reason we have Labour Day is thanks to a union strike protesting the daily 12-hour shifts most workers were expected to endure. The “Nine-hour movement” requested employers to limit the workday to nine hours. The cause was taken up by the Toronto Printer’s Union, who went on strike on March 25, 1872. On April 14, 1872, a group of 2,000 workers marched towards Queens Park. By the time they reached Queens Park, the number had grown to 10,000 people supporting the solidarity of the workers.
Employers were not impressed. Striking workers were replaced with labourers from other towns. George Brown, politician and owner of the Toronto Globe newspaper, led the actions against the striking workers. Although union activity was legal in Great Britain and had been for some time, Canadian law dictated that the strike was in fact “conspiracy” among the workers, and Brown wanted to see the union persecuted for this criminal act. The 24 members of the strike committee were jailed.
John A. MacDonald jumped on the opportunity to win favour with the working class. He campaigned to abolish the unfair labour laws, and on June 14, passed a Trade Union Act, which allowed Unions to take action in Canada. However, the workers who striked were left in an unfortunate position—despite the change in laws, they were still unemployed, and many were forced to leave Toronto to find work elsewhere.
The parades held to support workers became an annual tradition, and Labour Day became a national holiday on July 23, 1894.