Union Made and Keeps us Strong

There was a time when Labour Day, which occurred in spring every year, featured long public parades of craftsmen and tradesmen proudly celebrating their skills and services. But that was back in the 1800s, usually early in May, with the festive day ending with a community picnic, political speeches praising the workers, games and competitions, and the picnic dominated by home cooking.

By the end of the 1800s, the May festivals began to develop as a trade union celebration, usually organized to follow annual labour movement conventions held in New York in early September. By 1872, the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor (with the US spelling of “Labor” carefully noted) were actively organizing the first Monday in September as the day preferred to put organized labour on proud display.

Canadian branches of both organizations followed suit. Toronto was on board in 1882; Hamilton and Oshawa joined a year later in ‘83. Montreal followed in 1886; St. Catharines, ’87; Halifax ‘88; Ottawa and Vancouver 1890; and London, Ontario in 1892.

Together in organized strength, 50 labour organizations began in 1894 to lobby their national governments for recognition of an annual “labour day.” The Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital in Canada (1886-89) had already recommended Ottawa establish a “labour day.” In May 1894, Prime Minister John Thompson introduced legislation calling for a review of the established May holiday, but the House declined the opportunity and, without debate, passed an amended holiday law establishing the first Monday in September as Labour Day.

It received Royal Assent on July 21, 1894. A short time later, the United States recognized the same dates for Labour Day – or, as they would insist, Labor Day.

The decision to designate a national holiday to specifically honour organized labour may seem a penny-ante issue requiring simple decisions when compared with today’s existing international affairs and the problems that shimmer and threaten. But, think for a moment back to the times when the “labouring classes,” working for a lot less than a living wage, were growing restless.

Big business was aware of the restlessness, but not willing to do much about it. In fact, it was not willing to do anything that might cause a reduction in their profits. A day off work – without pay, of course – wouldn’t be too bad if it kept the galley slaves happy. And, if a parade, a few games and a picnic were thrown in and it was called Labour Day … well, no problem. Crumbs from the rich man’s table could always be provided.

Big business made the concessions – and fought every step of the way, going forward with challenges that organized labour met and conquered. The battle in the 1800s for a day called “Labour Day” was but a skirmish in the perennial struggle between labour and management; however, along the way, the workers learned the true meaning of one of their oft- used slogans – “the union makes us strong.”

And, management learned how strong the labour movement was when those managers took a moment to see what happens when the men and women working in the engine rooms of commerce are mistreated.

It was in St. Petersburg in 1905 that four members of a small legally-formed trade union sought to present a petition to the Czar protesting the firing of the four workers. They were joined by several hundred protesters who, by all eye witness accounts, marched peacefully until riflemen opened fire and sabre wielding Cossacks swept through the marchers leaving 200 dead and many wounded.

It was 1905 – some 12 years before March 8, 1917, when the Czar turned his military on a crowd pleading for food. They slaughtered 1,300 before defecting en masse and joining the rebels in revolution to complete the overthrow of the Czar and his government and create what became the Soviet Union.

In our corner of North America, labour and management reflected on the revolution and chose a different course, albeit not always a peaceful one. Historically, government officials, management and union leaders stand guilty of bad decisions, which led to bloodshed, death and injustice.

But, by and large, we haven’t done too badly and can be justly proud of celebrating another Labour Day, still together, even if we celebrate a bit nervously this year with violence and death common place and threatening worse.

3 comments

  1. I suppose Labour Day celebrates all workers or former workers, including those not represented by trade unions. But many of us associate the holiday with unionized workers and from their perspective there is less to celebrate.

    Only about 30 percent of Canadian workers belong to union, a figure that hasn’t changed much over 65 years. But they are better off than their American brothers and sisters: over those 65 years the U.S. unionization rate fell from 35 percent to 10 percent. This might explain that country’s economic disparity.

  2. I grew up in Fernie bc in the 50’s and early 60’s. Labour Day weekend was a big event with soccer and baseball games at the north end fields and I believe a parade in the morning with marching bands and floats. The soccer games were really popular due to the large European population in the Crowsnest pass on both sides of the B.C. Alberta border. Italian and German.

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