Canada and the United States on Monday will celebrate Labour Day to honour the struggles and sacrifices made during the labour movement which brought about the favourable working conditions that workers enjoy today. Most countries around the world, including India, celebrate Labour Day on May 1 to commemorate a workers’ union demonstration demanding an eight-hour work day in Chicago in 1886. While the idea of a day being kept aside for the sake of celebrating labour is popular worldwide, countries like Bahamas, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada and the United States have marked separate dates for the occasion.
At present, Labour Day in Canada and United States is casually understood to be a day of merrymaking with family and friends, marking the end of summer. Two centuries ago, however, the concept of a Labour Day celebrated on the first Monday of September every year was conceived to pay homage to the workers’ union movements that had taken root in these countries.
The idea of a holiday is just about two centuries old. It is only from the nineteenth century that public holidays were initiated by the government with the idea of building citizens, who would be more strongly committed to the nation state. In America for instance, July 4 became one such event. As noted by historians Craig Heron and Steven Penfold, Canada moved in this direction of marking days for public celebrations far more slowly. By the 1870s, the only two days marked out as public holidays were Queen Victoria’s birthday and Dominion Day, both of which basically acknowledged Canada’s status within the empire.
By the late 19th century, Canada was rapidly moving in the direction of industrialisation, immigration and overcrowding. A side effect of these processes was the frustration faced by workforce who were dwelling in deplorable conditions of long working hours and low wages. It is in this context that the first labour movement in Canada took roots.
The Toronto Printers Union had been lobbying for lesser working hours in the early 1870s. When their demands fell on deaf ears, they finally went on a strike on March 25, 1872. The workers’ strike had the effect of stalling the printing industry and the union soon had the support of workers from other industries. On April 14, workers staged a parade in Toronto in which about 10,000 people participated.
The organisation of workers’ union was banned during this period of time and the attempt of Canadian workers to organise a mass movement was met with harshness. The editor of Toronto Globe, George Brown hit back with legal action against the protestors and got arrested those in the leadership of the striking committee.
The sustained protests of the workers forced the political elite to finally act and Prime Minister John A. Macdonald turned against George Brown, who was also his political rival to free the arrested workers. On June 14, 1872 the Trade Union Act was passed which repealed the age old British law of banning workers’ unions.
While the primary demand of the workers, that of lesser number of work hours, had still not been met, the strike of April 1872 ignited a sense of solidarity among the workers. Further, a confidence emerged among them that organised protest against working conditions would be met with some sort of government support.
For a long time, the workers’ strike was celebrated annually and the demand for shorter work time spread across other parts of Canada. On July 23, 1894, the federal government made Labour Day a national holiday.
Overtime, however, the idea of Labour Day started losing its original significance and took the colour of a day for celebration of the last long weekend of summer in the form of family holidays, picnics and barbeques. Further, political events like the celebration of May Day and Labour Day in most other countries from the 1930s and the celebration of other movements like the International Women’s Day resulted in the observance of Labour Day losing its political flavour and becoming more of a cultural event.