Americans are vaguely aware of a sanitized version regarding the roots of this holiday in the United States. Most of us don’t know that a very similar holiday is also celebrated in Canada, Labour Day.
In both nations, inhabitants are told that Labour/Labor Day was created by the workers’ movement to celebrate the social well-being and achievements of working people. We may know that trade unions managed to convince our respective governments to declare a national holiday as a nod towards those of us who work in industry and business. We aren’t generally aware that Canada and the US are the only major nations that don’t celebrate Labour Day on May first.
This much background is neglected as people, in Canada and the United States, take in the “last holiday of summer” with day trips, picnics, shopping, or sporting events.
If we take a little time to investigate, we learn that Labour/Labor Day began with the struggle of the “Chicago Anarchists for the eight-hour workday. Sweatshop factory conditions were the rule, rather than the exception in the nineteenth century. Efforts to change these conditions were violently opposed by industrialists. In fact, to organize workers or to protest harsh, hazardous conditions was against the law.
The beginnings of labor/management communication, if you could call it that, were marked by suppression and violence. One of the many infamous events happened on May 3, 1886 when Chicago Police opened fire with live ammunition on strikers at the McCormick Harvester Machine Company. One worker was killed and another six were seriously wounded.
In protest, a mass meeting took place, the next day, at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest the police brutality. At the end of the meeting, most of the protesters had already left, leaving around 200 behind. Suddenly about 180 policemen marched into the crowd and ordered the meeting to disperse. Someone, threw a bomb that killed one of the officers and fatally injured six more. Police shot into the crowd and killed an undetermined mass number of workers.
Immediately afterwards, police raided offices and homes of supposed activists and arrested hundreds of people without being charged with a crime. Police continued a terror campaign the next few days with the aim of arresting all anarchists and leftists. There were many more similar violent incidents around the country involving industrial, agricultural, and mine workers.
Meantime, Labour Day activity in Canada had earlier, similar, less violent beginnings. Five years following the Confederation of Canada, the Toronto Trades Assembly organized the first large -scale workers’ demonstration on April 15, 1872. The march was in direct violation of British legislation against unions that had been passed against so-called “criminal conspiracies” to disrupt trade. Even though most of those laws had been abolished by the 1870s, the prohibition against organized labour was still in force.
The motivation for the April demonstration was to exact the release of 24 officers of the Toronto Typographical Union. They had been arrested because of a strike to obtain a nine-hour workday. 27 unions representing carriage makers, construction labour, metal workers, wood workers, and several others decided to march in solidarity of the typographical workers. The date was Thanksgiving, which was then commemorated in the Spring.
On that day, more than 10,000 citizens gathered on Toronto streets to support and watch as trade unionists marched to the accompaniment of bands. Groups of people later gathered to hear speeches from union leaders demanding freedom for the typographical workers. Many of the leaders went on to advocate in favor of improved conditions for all workers.
The Toronto demonstration inspired labour leaders in other Canadian cities to stage their own events. On September third of that year, seven unions in Ottawa organized a huge, mile-long parade featuring military bands and the city’s firemen. As the parade passed the Prime Minister’s home, P.M. Sir John MacDonald boarded a carriage to City Hall. At an evening event, MacDonald gave a rousing speech to the demonstrators, urging that anti-union laws should be completely abolished.
Indeed, before the year end, the anti-labour laws had been revoked from Canadian statute books.
Labour Day was celebrated annually, in the Spring, by Canadians until it was declared a legal, national holiday by Parliament in 1894. The holiday was moved to early Autumn and has been celebrated at this time ever since then.
It was the initial success of the Labour Day organizers in Canada, that inspired labor leaders in the United States to have a labor day of their own. Officials of the Knights of Labor and the Central Labor Union in New York City promoted the idea of saluting the victims of the Haymarket Massacre.
The leaders originally advocated the celebration to coincide with May Day of 1887. Unfortunately, President Grover Cleveland disagreed. The President believed the May Day commemoration would become associated with the budding anarchist, communist, syndicalist movements. The States and DC had already made International Workers’ Day an official holiday on their calendars.
President Cleveland negotiated with the head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Samuel Gompers and other leaders about the date. It was then decided to use the date proposed by the Knights of Labor. In 1887, the first Monday of September was officially selected to celebrate Labor Day.
Further efforts to officially commemorate the victims of anti-labor violence in the United States were unsuccessful until President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Francis Perkins as his Secretary of Labor. She was not only the first female Presidential Cabinet member, she was also a friend of working people. It was through her work that the Federal Government prohibited child labor, normalized the eight-hour workday, and enabled other workplace employee safeguards.
In subsequent years, retail store owners have decided to take advantage of the fact that large numbers of shoppers have an extra day off of work. Many store owners then decided to remain open on Labor Day, for an extended holiday weekend sale period. Labor Day has now become a major shopping day. The laborers employed in the retail industry not only must work on their holiday, but they’ll also work a longer day. This means that almost a quarter of the American workforce will be working today on their “day of rest”.
Of noteworthy interest, only about three percent of retail workers are represented by organized labor. In many instances, generally, Labor Day has become less concerned about labor and more about a recess for owners and management. Labor Day has become a more intense day at work for many laborers.