The History of Labour Day

Updated: Sep 8


In 1889, Montreal declared Labour Day a civic holiday, to be celebrated on the first Monday of September. It was also celebrated in other cities around the country, but only became a federal statutory holiday in 1894, both here and in the United States. Although, like Ferragosto, it has mainly become an opportunity to get away or celebrate with friends and family over the long weekend, Labour Day originates in… labour organizing, of course! Many trace its roots back to the 1872 Nine Hour Movement, an international fight for shorter working days, led by workers and unions.


For most of the nineteenth century, union activity and labour organizing was illegal in Canada. As rapid industrialization further cemented the capitalist status-quo, workers faced long work days and weeks, unsafe and unsanitary work conditions, and very little - if any - rights and influence in the workplace. Organizers and union leaders, as well as their supporters, could be jailed or face other serious consequences.


In the end, the Nine Hour Movement wasn’t successful in reducing the work day, but did encourage further organizing around workers’ rights and freedoms. The parades held in support of the movement became annual events, which would eventually be held specifically on the first Monday of September. Though the more political aspect of Labour Day has given way to a more leisure-focused celebration, other international holidays, like May Day, include more militant organizing and parading, as was traditional for Labour Days of the past.


Historically, labour organizers and union memberships have been largely male and white. Particularly pre-WWII, “the Canadian labour movement held strongly anti-immigrant and often openly racist views regarding so-called ‘foreigners’ arriving in Canada” (Foster, Taylor, and Khan 412). To protect the interests and salaries of ‘Canadian’ workers, unions supported anti-immigration legislation, would refuse membership to workers based on ethnicity, and even supported deportation (412). As Italian-Canadians, many of our families have difficult stories to tell about labour: about low-paying jobs, workplace accidents, and even sudden deaths that were not investigated. The reality is that many of these lost lives were not valued, inside or outside the workplace.


The xenophobic claims that immigrants “take our jobs” and “affect our standard of living” have a long history, even in the attitudes of our own community. Within labour organizing, which aims to champion the rights and lives of workers in a capitalist system made to exploit and abuse them, we see distinctions made between who matters more, who matters less, and who doesn’t matter at all.



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For more perspectives on labour and immigration in Montreal, pick up a copy of C.I.A.O.’s first zine in our shop. All profits from zine sales go to the Immigrant Workers Centre.


Cited:

Foster, Jason, Alison Taylor and Candy Khan. “The dynamics of union responses to migrant workers in Canada.” Work, Employment & Society, Vol. 29, No. 3 (JUNE 2015), pp. 409-426.


Resources:


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