Backgrounder: The Riotous Origin of Labour Day

You can thank people who refused to work 6-day, 60+-hour work weeks for origin of Labour Day weekend.

In Newfoundland, Labour Day Weekend means a long weekend getaway around the bay in a tent or cabin, an escape from work, but the luxury of a short work week every September started with a big riot in the streets of Toronto, circa 1872, by people working 6-day, 60+-hour work weeks.

The second half of the 1800s were a troublesome time for Canada’s average worker bee. If you think the 40-hour work week sucks, or that your boss is a hardass about you showing up late on Mondays, these folks were fighting to get the work week reduced to 54 hours, in an era where unions were illegal, for fear they’d disrupt trade.

With immigration spiking and rural folks moving into town, cities were getting crowded, and jobs were not easy to come by. It didn’t help that machinery was replacing workers, so people’s trades were becoming redundant.

Workers who did have work during these hard times were finding their voice and concerns muted and moot — there were enough people looking for work that it was expected employees would just shut up whining and do their job, or they’d be replaced with a less troublesome worker.

Ultimately, no one was comfortable speaking out against low wages, brutally long work weeks, and disturbing working conditions or health or safety hazards. Yet, for years, the folks under the banner of “The Toronto Trades Assembly” kept lobbying their employers for a shorter work week.

Sick of deaf ears about their demands, and their subsequent threat to strike, a pile of workers at printers in Toronto went on strike on March 25th, 1872, absolutely crippling Toronto’s printing industry, and spurring other over-worked Torontonians into revolt.

A Toronto newspaper being directly affected by its striking workers did not relent. Instead, its founder (George Brown) simply brought in workers from nearby towns, then took legal action against the strike’s leaders — who were subsequently charged and imprisoned for “Criminal Conspiracy to Disrupt Trade.”

On April 14th, 2,000 workers took to the streets in a show of solidarity, and by the time their march ended, the mob of mad workers totalled 10,000 people. That’s 1 in 10 people working in Toronto at the time. This became known as “The Nine-Hour Movement,” and the revolt started taking root in other Canadian cities, where a shorter work week became the principle demand of the Canadian workforce, coast to coast.

Enter Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. A politician who sides with the people is a politician likely to stay in power, and he saw a real opportunity brewing for Canadians and his own career alike. When he publicly condemned  George Brown and Toronto Globe’s actions, he was an instead hit with Canada’s working class.

From here, Macdonald passed the Trade Union Act. In a nutshell, before this act, Canada was still operating under outmoded British law — laws long abolished in Britain — bringing Canada in line with better working conditions for its people. For example, Macdonald’s Act made unions legal in Canada — prior to this act unions were illegal, for being potentially disruptive to trade. The act snowballed into founding the Canadian Labour Congress.

While The Act did not immediately change things for the average worker, it did inspire them: they saw that employers and politicians were taking note of their collective voice and power in numbers. Today’s “Labour Day” has its origins in an annual parade held in support of those rebels in Toronto who were jailed on behalf of all of us being able to be home for supper at 5 on workdays.

The parade became a show celebration for worker’s rights and demands, and different unions marched with their  flags held high. These parades became rallies, and in 1894, and the initial plea for shorter work weeks that prompted these annual parades was fittingly declared a national statutory holiday, by Prime Minister Sir John Thompson, so that all of us would always have a short work week near the end of the summer.

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