Sunday, September 06, 2009

While anarchists, like most of the world, consider May Day, May 1, as the actual real Labour Day the first Monday in September is the officially delegated one in Canada and the USA. This Labour Day grew out of labour struggles in Ontario during the 19th century. Here's the story as told in the pages of the Vancouver Sun.
Labour Day originated in Canada:
When asked what Canada is famous for, most people would probably say the Maple Leaf or hockey, or perhaps in a more serious vein, our impressive history of human rights.
Not one in a hundred people, Canadian or otherwise, would likely mention Labour Day. But as it happens, the holiday that celebrates the contributions of workers around the world began right here.

It all started on April 15, 1872, when Canada was just five years old. Although the United Kingdom had repealed a law making membership in a union a criminal offence in 1871, the crime still existed in Canada in 1872, and 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union, who had been striking for a 58-hour work week, had been imprisoned.

That led the Toronto Trades Assembly to call its 27 unions to attend a demonstration, and on April 15, 10,000 people turned out to hear speeches calling for the repeal of the law that made union membership illegal.

Buoyed by that success, on Sept. 3 members of seven Ottawa unions held a parade a mile long, led by the Garrison Artillery Band and flanked by city firefighters. The parade made its way to the home of then prime minister John A. Macdonald, picked up the PM -- literally -- and took him to Ottawa City Hall in a carriage by torchlight.

Ever the savvy politician, and evidently aware that it was best not to rile up a mile-long parade after dark, Macdonald promised that he would "sweep away all such barbarous laws from the statute books."

Macdonald and the Conservative government made good on his promise the following year.
But the trade unions had further work to do, so they continued to hold annual parades and demonstrations.

On July 22, 1882, the Toronto Trades and Labour Council decided to invite New Yorker Peter J. McGuire, the general secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and co-founder of the American Federation of Labour, to speak at the demonstration.

McGuire was duly impressed by the event and, when he returned home, he proposed that the United States celebrate a day in honour of workers. Sure enough, the Americans celebrated their first unofficial Labour Day on Sept. 5, 1882, and McGuire became known as the "father of Labour Day."

Over the next decade, individual states enacted legislation designating the first Monday in September Labour Day, and on June 28, 1894, the U.S. Congress passed a federal law enshrining the holiday. Just four weeks later, the government of then prime minister John Thompson enacted a similar law, and now the first Monday in September is celebrated as Labour Day throughout North America.

So in little more than a century, workers have gone from fighting for 58-hour weeks to expecting the standard 35- or 40-hour week. Strangely, though, despite these advances, recent surveys suggest that people are working harder than ever, and have less free time. Many workers don't even take all of their allotted vacations, and they stay tied to their desks through the "advances" of technology.

The economic meltdown, which began just about a year ago, has only made workers' woes worse, as layoffs have made the overworked the objects of envy.

From this perspective, things can only go up, and, if recent economic prognostications are to be believed, it appears that they will in relatively short order.

That's certainly worth celebrating right now.

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