John Keith Communications Logo John Keith Communications   
Technical Writing Pronunciation Oral Fluency Vocabulary Grammar Listening Reading Links Client Services

Labour Day

© John Keith 2009

Double-click on any word to look it up and hear it pronounced in the FreeDictionary.

Hide or Show Text While Practicing Listening.

Origins and History of Labour Day

Labour Day, the first Monday in September, signals the end of summer and the beginning of fall. It's the time to start school again after the relaxation of the summer holidays, but Labour Day, as the name implies, had its origins in the world of work.

Although in 1871 England had repealed a law making membership in a labour union illegal, in Canada it was still a criminal offense to belong to a union. In April, 1872, the Toronto Trades Assembly held a demonstration to protest the jailing of 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union, which was on strike for a reduction of their work week to 58 hours. Over 10,000 people came to hear the speeches calling for the repeal of the anti-union law. It was a huge crowd by any standards but especially so for Toronto in those early years of confederation.

Later that year on September 3, another protest was held in Ottawa. A huge parade, which was reputed to be a mile long and included a military band, wound its way through the city It stopped to pick up Prime Minister John A. Macdonald along the way. It brought him in a carriage to Ottawa City Hall, where the parade ended, and Macdonald addressed the enormous crowd and promised he would "sweep away all such barbarous laws from the statute books" as the one making it illegal to belong to a union.

John A. Macdonald kept his promise, but trade unions still held yearly demonstrations and parades to try to get better conditions for all workers. At one demonstration the next year in Toronto in 1882, a New York labour leader, Peter J. McGuire, who eventually became the co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was asked to speak. The event made such an impression on McGuire that back in the United States he suggested there be a special day to commemorate workers. September 5th of that year was the first unofficial "Labour Day". The Central Labour Union in New York City held a special labour day holiday and 20,000 workers paraded through the city calling for an eight-hour work day and chanting "Labor creates all wealth!" The second "Labour Day" was held exactly one year later: September 5th, 1883. Over the next few years many individual states enacted a Labour Day holiday, and eventually the American Government followed suit. In 1894, Congress proclaimed Labour Day a federal holiday to be held the first Monday in September. A month later, Prime Minister John Thompson also made Labour Day an official holiday in Canada.

Labour Day is celebrated here on the first Monday in September, but around the word it is usually commemorated on May 1st (or the first Monday in May) as International Workers' Day or May Day; the latter has links to ancient pagan celebrations of the seasons.

Here in North America, it's fitting that Labour Day is a time of rest and leisure before going back to the usual work and school work of the fall. We take for granted our modern 7 1/2 or 8 hour work day and 35 or 40 hour work week, but we should remember that Labour Day started as a protest against long work days and harsh conditions. In Britain in 1817, Robert Owen created the slogan, Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest, and this was chanted in the first unofficial Labour Day parade in New York. It wasn't until many decades later, however, that the 8 hour day was actually achieved in North America, Britain, and Europe. As you enjoy your Labour Day recreation on Monday, and after eight hours rest you resume your eight hour work day on Tuesday, remember the many thousands of workers and union members who demonstrated and paraded to achieve the conditions we all now enjoy.

(Top of Page)

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional         Valid CSS!