Monday, September 03, 2007

Today is Labour Day in Canada and the USA...but nowhere else. Why ? The reason is hidden in the history of the Canadian and American labour movements.Through most of the world 'Labour Day' is the traditional May 1st festival- Mayday. In Australia and New Zealand today totally different dates are celebrated as "Labour Day". The day to celebrate the accomplishments and needs of working people is set for the fourth Monday in October in New Zealand. There its origin dates back to the eight hours a day struggle, as does May Day in the civilized world and Labour Day in Canada and Australia and Labor Day in the USA. In New Zealand the struggle for the eight hour day dates back to the 1840s when it was initiated by the carpenter Samuel Parnell. On October 28th, 1890 the 50th anniversary of the struggle for an eight hour day was commemorated by a parade. This began to be celebrated each year as either Labour Day or Eight-Hour Demonstration Day. In 1899 the New Zealand government legislated that this day would be a public holiday beginning in 1900. The holiday was "Mondayized" in 1910 due to the complaints of shipowners that seamen were taking more than one day of holidays as the event varied from province to province in NZ. This is sort of the "archetype" for Labour Day in the anglosphere as it was very much a government and business alternative to the more radical Mayday.

In Australia the day of Labour Day is set by state and territorial governments. It is the first Monday in October in the Australian Federal Territory, New South Wales and South Australia. In Victoria and Tasmania it is the second Monday in March. In Western Australia it is the first first Monday in March. In Queensland and the Northern Territory it is the first Monday in May, close to the day when it is celebrated in the rest of the world. In Australia Labour Day was also connected to the eight-hour day struggle. Australian stonemasons and building workers were the first to achieve an eight hour day with no loss of pay when they downed tools on April 21st, 1856 and marched from the University of Melbourne to Parliament House. This inspired the fight for the 8 hour day across the world.

Labour leaders in Canada like to claim Labour Day as a Canadian invention. This may be "mathematically true" as Labour day was declared an official holiday in Canada in 1894, five years before it was so declared in New Zealand. It also became an official holiday in 1894 in the USA. Quite frankly from examining the history Molly cannot see the Canadian priority. is nothing to be proud of as it was a move to preempt the regular Labour Day that most workers across the world wanted ie May 1st, May Day.

In Canada the origins of Labour Day date back to April 15th, 1872 when the Toronto Trades Assembly organized the first significant Canadian workers' demonstration. at the time unions in Canada were illegal under laws about "criminal conspiracy". One of the prime reasons fro organizing the demonstration was to demand the release of 24 members of the Toronto Typographical Union who has been imprisoned because of the "crime" of going on strike to demand a 9 hour day. This demonstration too place in the Spring, close to may day, and upwards of 10,000 people marched in the streets of Toronto that day. On Sept 3rd, 1872 seven unions in the Ottawa area organized a parade that stretched for over a mile long. This parade passed the home of the then Prime Minister Sir John A. McDonald, and being drunk as usual he couldn't help but join in. it might have helped that the parade was headed by the Garrison Artillery Band. The parade went on to the Ottawa City Hall where John A., in a fit of drunken generosity, promised to abolish the anti-conspiracy laws. This was actually done before the year was out. Standing proof that it better to have a drunken fool at the head of government rather than a nasty sober fool. Labour Day was declared an official holiday on July 23rd, 1894, under the government of Sir John Thompson and the date was moved to the fall. The first Labour day parade in Winnipeg in 1894 was two miles long!

One of the speakers who was asked to address the first annual Toronto demonstration of 1872 was Peter J. McGuire, Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters which had been organized just the year before. In 1872 McGuire proposed to the New York Central Labor Union the idea of a festive day set aside to be a celebration of labour.McGuire had originally proposed his idea to the CLU on may 18th, 1882. The first Labor day was celebrated in the USA on September 5th, 1882. Peter McGuire(see left) organized the first Labour Day Parade in 1882 along with the Knights of Labour in New York.Over 10,000 workers marched in the parade despite the opposition of their employers. The next parade was held in 1884, and the Knights of Labor passed a resolution calling for a Labor Day in early September. This was opposed by the affiliates of the International Workingman's' Association (Molly Note- Molly will NOT agree with the 'politically correct' fashion or renaming historical organizations to fit our present politics. This WAS the name of the organization at the time. NOT "The International Workers' Association' nor, more clumsily and more trendy, 'The International Working Peoples Association'. Telling the truth is ONE of the requisites of any real politics, and renaming things is simply...a lie) who argued for May 1st as per the day desired by international labour. The move for a Labor day holiday spread across the USA. The first Labor Day celebration in Detroit was on august 16th, 1884, and it attracted 50,000 people to a rally in Recreation Park.

The origins of Labour Day in the USA also date back to the Pullman strike of 1893. This began in the company town of Pullman in 1893. The Pullman railroad car company laid off hundreds of employees in that year and also cut wages for the remaining employees. The American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs of later Socialist party fame, came to the aid of the striking workers, and railway workers across the country began to boycott cars manufactured by the Pullman Company. President Grover Cleveland responded by declaring the strike illegal and deploying federal troops as strike breakers. The strike was declared over on August 3rd, 1894, and Eugene Debs was sent to jail for his role in it. Debs went to prison on other occasions afterwards, something that it is hard to imagine most of the "leaders of labour" doing today.

In 1892 workers in NYC held a wildcat strike and marched around Union Square in support of an official Labor Day holiday. Cleveland saw his political opportunity, and just six days after he had broken the Pullman Strike in 1894 he signed a bill passed unanimously by both Houses of Congress declaring an official Labor Day in early September. The bill was a sop to the labour movement that he had violently repressed during the Pullman Strike. 1894 was, after all, an election year, and Grover saw his opportunity to play both sides.

Since its inception Labour Day has indeed served its purpose as a diversion from the radical demands of labour. The efforts of labour activists in Canada and the USA to recover May 1st as the "real labour day" have yet to be successful. For a story of the REAL labour day, My 1st see previous posts on this blog on April 30th, 2007 and may 1st, 2007(see our archives for those months). Don't forget to check out mega-blogger Eugene Plawiuk site, Le Revue Gauche, for information on May Day. For other anarchist takes on "the real labour day" see:
May Day:The Real Labor Day
May Day: The Labor Day:
The IWW 'Brief Origins of May Day':

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