Frederick Douglas, former slave and abolitionist organizer, once said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Labour Day stands as proof of Douglas’ statement. It reminds us all that the rights we enjoy today were not handed to us through the benevolence and goodwill of employers. Quite the contrary. Working men and women had to organize and protest and fight for their rights – sometimes at the cost of their lives.
In 1872, a time when unions were illegal in Canada, workers in Toronto went on strike after their employer consistently dismissed and ignored their demands for a shorter work week. Other workers soon joined, marching in a show of solidarity with their striking brothers and sisters. More and more supporters joined the striking workers and, by the time they marched on to Queen’s Park, their march had 10,000 participants.
To get a sense of how large this was, it’s important to keep in mind that Toronto, in 1872, only had a population of around 100,000. Thus, the workers’ march represented 10% of the total population of the city. It was too large to be ignored.
The march was so huge, in fact, that even Conservative Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald, took note and offered his support. MacDonald went on to pass the Trade Union Act, which decriminalized unions.
The strike proved that as long as workers stood in solidarity they were not powerless. They could make the employers and politicians listen to their demands, which later merged into the “Nine-Hour Movement”, whereby workers across the country stood in solidarity in demanding the shorter working day of nine-hours. In 1894, Prime Minister John Thompson, declared Labour Day a national holiday.
Amidst all of the barbecues and fun to be had this labour day, it’s good to recall that Labour Day is a reminder that we should thank Canada’s labour unions. Through the labour movement unions have helped workers secure the rights and benefits enjoyed today, including: weekends off; breaks at work, including lunch breaks; paid vacation; overtime pay; minimum wage, occupational health and safety laws; sick leave; and pensions. If these and other rights appeal to you, take a moment to think about Canada’s unions and the hardworking men and women who continue the proud tradition of standing up for workers the world over.