Friday 29 August 2014

Labour Day: More Than Just a Day Off

Labour Day Weekend is already upon us. We think of it as the last chance to pack in some summer activities before school starts; however, the origins of the holiday lie in the Labour Movement of the 19th century. As industrialization took hold and cities became more crowded, workers were subjected to long hours, poor conditions, and unfair wages. Unions were formed to represent workers' interests, eventually resulting in improved working situations through collective bargaining as well as labour laws.

Canadian Labour Day can be traced to March 25th, 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike for a nine-hour work day. Joanna Dawson of Canada's History Magazine writes, "On April 14, a group of 2,000 workers marched through the streets in a show of solidarity. They picked up even more supporters along the way and by the time they reached their destination of Queen's Park, their parade had 10,000 participants - one tenth of the city's population... The parade that was held in support of the strikers carried over into an annual celebration of workers' rights and was adopted in cities throughout Canada. The parades demonstrated solidarity, with different unions identified by the colourful banners they carried. In 1894, under mounting pressure from the working class, Prime Minister Sir John Thompson declared Labour Day a national holiday."

Archbishop Pocock collected various pamphlets dealing with different labour issues. Below is a sampling:

"A union can secure the laws you need - laws to protect your safety and health at work, to protect your rights, to protect your children against harmful work, to protect you as a consumer, and other laws to prevent your being exploited."
...A Union Catechism: 1939

"Will your wages provide the education he needs? Or will he have to work at fourteen? Will his mother have to go out to earn money and leave him to someone else's care? Will your wages give him the food and clothing he needs and add a few books and playthings? ... Because a union represents the united strength of men and women in your trade it can set high standards of wages and work conditions, higher than you could obtain alone. It can maintain these standards against reductions. It can assure you income during sickness of unemployment, and life insurance or death benefits. In times of need, you can count on your union to stand by you and your family."
His Future: [1924-1952?]

"If a little more wages will help me get the things you have, and shorter hours will allow me to have a little garden and time for the family, then I've made up my mind."
As Man to Man: [19-?]

"It does not require any elaborate social philosophy or great discernment to know that a wage of $3 a day and a workday of eight hours in sanitary workshops are better than $2.50 a day and a workday of twelve hours under perilous conditions. The working people will not stop when any particular point is reached; they will never stop in their efforts to obtain a better life for themselves, for their wives, for their children, and for all humanity. The object is to attain complete social justice."
The American Labor Movement: Its Makeup Achievements and Aspirations: 1914

"In no other walk of life does the idea exist that a man must arbitrarily accept any offer that may be made by another. There are two sides always to an agreement. Each side ought to have equal chances to propose and insist upon what is considered a fair agreement."
Collective Bargaining: Labor's Proposal to Insure Greater Industrial Peace With Questions and Answers Explaining the Principle: 1920

"The Federal Department of Labor informs us that a recently invented "money-saving machine" will do "in less than three hours the work that used to take one man seventy-seven hours," and adds, that "the labor-saving represented by this new machine is a net gain for the cotton farmer." ...."The question spontaneously presents itself," ... "What of the thousands of persons who made a living, however meager, by gathering the cotton? And will it be of any advantage to the farmers to offer their cotton at a lower price on account of this invention, if through its utilization a large number of people are deprived of the means of purchasing the product?"
The Machine and Unemployment: 1934

"Of late, inventions are rapidly invading the sphere of clerical work. A calculator, invented by Professor Charles D. Fawcett, having 75,000 parts and weighing three tons, recently solved a problem in 15 minutes on which five expert mathematicians of the U.S. Army worked four months before finding the solution."
More Machines and More Unemployment: 1934
The Labour Movement gave us many things which we now take for granted. Weekends, child labour laws, fair pay, benefits, sick days, paid vacations, lunch breaks, pensions, harassment laws, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour work week, occupational health and safety rules, minimum wage, and paid holidays. This Monday when you are relaxing, take a moment to be thankful for the working environments we now enjoy in Canada!

For more information, check out the Canadian Museum of History's online exhibit.

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