Regional Executive Vice President, PSAC North
It’s the unofficial end of summer. Another seasonal festival? This upcoming long weekend brings an empowering feeling that will leave me inspired. While planning for this year’s Labour Day event, I still feel empowered by last year’s celebrations spending the day with members and the public. I flipped burgers while having my eyes on the line of people who came with their families to show their solidarity and support to the union while enjoying the BBQ event. Being there was my way of saying thank you.
No matter where we will be this Monday, let’s take the time to celebrate our labour movement. This day is an opportunity for us to thank Canada’s labour pioneers whose struggles paved the way for a strong union that defends workers’ rights and works for the interests and well-being of communities. However, our words of gratitude and thanks are meaningless without action. As we enjoy our rights and improved working conditions, we must not confine the struggles and victories of our labour movement to history’s text books.
Let’s get the time machine ready and take ourselves on a journey through history. Imagine working for at least ten hours or more a day, while not having a weekend to look forward to. Labour Day dates back to 1872, at a time when unions were illegal in Canada. Armed by their determination and courage, Toronto’s print workers decided to take a strong action. The Toronto Typographical Union demanded a nine-hour workday from the city’s publishers. Employers refused. On March 25, 1872, the workers went on strike.
The employers responded to the print workers’ bold action, and they hired replacement workers in an attempt to stop the movement and deter other workers from taking similar actions. But the opposite happened. Strikers gained extensive support from other workers in Toronto and more than 10,000 supporters showed up for a rally at Queen’s Park on April 15, 1872. As union activity was illegal, members of the strike committee were arrested for criminal conspiracy the next day. Having gained widespread support, people protested in solidarity with those arrested. Citizens got mobilized around this cause putting pressure on the government to take an action. Therefore, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald realized the benefit of siding with the workers and introduced the Trade Union Act on April 18, 1872, legalizing unions. The “Nine-Hour Movement” emerged from the strike in Toronto and led to annual celebrations of what’s known as Labour Day.
The “Nine-Hour Movement” spread across Canadian cities leading to more mobilization of workers who demanded a shorter work week. Annual parades were held every year in support of strikers and in celebration of workers’ rights. More than twenty years later, Labour Day was declared a national holiday in 1894.
It is impossible for me to encapsulate a history of struggles, challenges and victories in a couple of paragraphs, but I wanted to use this space to remind ourselves that the rights we enjoy today have been achieved through the hard work of those who have come before us. Now it’s our responsibility to keep up their good work. If we don’t learn from our history and hold on to the gains that the labour movement has been able to achieve, we are going to lose them. Unions gave you weekends— that’s a prominent cliché that you would hear. It’s true. But what’s more important to know is that under unions, we have the right to organize. That’s more than weekends, and benefits! Wherever they are, unions have always been known to be standing up for democracies. It is hard to imagine a time in which labour activists risked their lives and were arrested for defending workers’ rights and promoting social justice. However, that’s not history in many parts of the world. There are places where unions are still considered illegal. At a time when some voices are undermining the role of unions, it’s important to stand up, fight back and remember those who struggled to give us the right to organize. While continuing to promote workers’ rights, a strong labour movement does more than that by recognizing and promoting human rights. It’s a powerful counterbalance to the capitalist forces that prioritize profit over the wellbeing of communities.
What are your plans for this weekend? Whether you are going to attend a Labour Day event around you or spending the time with family and loved ones or just relaxing by yourself, take a moment, close your eyes and remember those who have worked hard in order for all of us to consider Labour Day as a day of celebration. Let the vibes of the day give us the energy to continue promoting and defending social justice.
This column originally appeared in Yellowknifer on August 29, 2018.