The roots and lost radicalism of Labour Day

Not just a day off, but a historically important holiday


by Meera Eragoda, Editor-in-Chief

If you’re anything like me, you’ve viewed the first Monday of September as nothing more than your last day of freedom before the Fall semester begins. Though Labour Day has been thoroughly divorced from its roots, its history is an important one. In an age when labour has lost more rights than it’s gained and is largely exploited, this holiday is a reminder of the power labour once held.

Labour Day was officially deemed a statutory holiday in Canada in 1894. There are competing theories for how the day came about. 


Radical Roots or Sellout?

The Canadian Encyclopedia hypothesizes the catalyst for Labour Day was an Ontario printers’ strike in 1872 referred to as the “Nine Hour Movement.” True to its name, workers were fighting for a nine hour workday instead of the more common 12 hour day. The Toronto Typographical Union advocated for the workers but their demands were turned down by the owners of the printing shops, leaving them no choice but to strike. On March 25, 1872, they did just that. 

The owners retaliated by bringing in strikebreakers (replacement workers). One of these owners, George Brown, brought a lawsuit against the union for “conspiracy.” Brown was relying on a law from 1792 which deemed union activity criminal, resulting in arrests and jail time for 24 of the striking members.

Hope eventually came from then prime minister John A. Macdonald who passed the Trade Unions Act on June 14, 1872 to provide protections for union activity. Macdonald, however, did not do this out of the kindness of his heart but did so because of a rivalry with Brown.

Following the printers’ win, most other unions included demands for a nine hour day and a shorter work week and eventually led to demands for the eight hour workday. It also resulted in annual celebrations, one of which inspired American labour leader Peter J. McGuire to organize America’s first “labor day” on September 5, 1882. 

Though celebrated unofficially since 1890, pressure from labour organizations made Canada finally declare Labour Day an official holiday on July 23, 1894.

However, many, like SFU history professor Mark Leier, see Labour Day as a bone thrown to workers by Macdonald who was trying to stop the rising militancy of labour groups. Leier has written extensively about Labour Day in The Tyee. They write that long before any official declarations of Labour Day or May Day, workers held parades, marches, and the like to emphasise the message of there being no wealth without labour, as well as to enjoy a day of recreation.

They believe the real history of Labour Day cannot be attributed to just one event but was a culmination of years of labour activism. As a response to an increasing wage gap, Canada saw a rise of radical unions like the Knights of Labor, labour as a political motivator and election issue, and increasing strikes. To try and stop the rising discontent, Macdonald formed the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital. The commission made several recommendations for improving work conditions but instead of making any material conditions, the only recommendation eventually adopted was the one to recognize Labour Day as a statutory holiday.


Decline of Labour Day

The Canadian Encyclopedia notes Labour Day “tread a fine line between politics and pleasure,” acting as a way for unions to express demands and unify workers. But after it was officially enshrined as a holiday, celebrations changed and were increasingly co-opted by local businesses.

The decline of Labour Day became evident in the 1950s with the rise of consumerism. Additionally, there was also an increase of “unskilled” workers who didn’t identify with the movement in the same way as those in craft unions, the view of Labour Day as a sellout holiday, and a growing emphasis on May Day — born out of the Haymarket Affair — as the real workers’ holiday. While there are still parades today, attendance has drastically waned.

Governments have since worked hard to restrict the rights of labour and corporations have only continued their exploitation of labour — especially that of racialized workers, women, Indigenous peoples, workers in the Global South, and more.

Most recently, COVID-19 has meant an increasing wealth gap while billionaires continue to capitalize off the pandemic and unemployment grows. Many workers are choosing not to return to jobs with terrible conditions. Grocery stores who were applauding their workers and increasing pay quietly took that pay away not long after.


Why Celebrate Labour Day?

So what does Labour Day mean in this context? Is it still worth celebrating?

Leier thinks “any renewed interest would be great!” 

They share with The Peak, “The emphasis should be on the fact that labour — workers — won this holiday through militant, radical organizing and resistance [and] to remember and celebrate that.”

But labour movements, such as the ones that led to the creation of May Day and Labour Day, haven’t been perfect. They’ve largely been spearheaded by cis, white, male workers, excluding many others. 

The labour movement tended to be led by so-called skilled workers in trades. And that element, and particularly the leadership, was uninterested in organizing the unorganized, the so-called unskilled, and the female, non-Anglo working class [ . . . ] However, other labour movements existed and offered a better model: the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, and industrial unions. These movements explicitly set out to organize all those the conservative trade union movement ignored and betrayed. They had a much harder job, though, and were fought much more viciously by bosses, the state, and often the conservative union movement.”

Since the beginnings of labour movements, workers have been employed in precarious labour. Today, we see this labour utilized in areas like the gig economy or in programs like the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Leier says this can also be seen in the past such as when longshoremen had to make bids to work every day or when railway workers were contracted for short amounts of time. “By 1905 or so, there were literally 100s of 1000s of workers” travelling across North America in search of different jobs.

As Labour Day is rarely celebrated, the blank slate it offers might actually be beneficial in imagining a more inclusive movement. 

“Labour Day might help us remember that labour — workers — have always faced problems [ . . . ] of divisions of occupation, race, sexuality, gender, ethnicity — and have always sought ways to build unity and solidarity across those divisions to fight for better lives. That record of militancy and radicalism needs to be re-emphasized and rebuilt to recognize and reflect the working class of today,” says Leier.

They added Labour Day should be more than a celebration. We should also remember that labour movements were “quickly co-opted, often with the cooperation of conservative labour leaders who were looking out for their own jobs and connections with capital and government at the expense of workers.”


Labour at SFU

One of the ways we have seen issues of labour play out is close to home. SFU administrators have dragged their heels on giving RAs or contract workers rights. They have also been slow to implement COVID-19 restrictions that would make staff and students comfortable. Additionally, they generally underpay and overwork lecturers and other non-tenured staff. 

It’s important to remember that universities are run like businesses, Leier explains.

It is literally the job of top administrators to run SFU — all universities — according to the principles of capitalist business: lower costs, especially labour costs, increase revenue by speeding up the work process and ‘producing more units,’ that is to say, students,” they say. 

“They always fit ‘doing the right thing’ into that framework, and so we should not expect them to act differently on their own. They need to be pushed and confronted and people need to organize to push and confront them to do more.”

Leier makes it clear labour was once a force to be reckoned with, and still can be. For students looking to engage in Labour Day, Leier says, “Students come from all sorts of places, physical and mental and political places, but three ways they might start thinking about Labour Day are:

  • to reflect on their own jobs and to work with others to fix them; 
  • to recognize, respect, and help improve the work of all the people: cleaners, food servers, TAs, everyone who makes their education possible; and 
  • finally, to connect these issues with other groups and people and struggles locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.”

Some initiatives on campus to support are the tuition freeze, contract workers justice campaign, and the research assistants petition for healthcare.