For many today, the origin of Labour Day seems to have been lost; a date on the calendar that marks the last long weekend of the summer season. That’s why it is instructive to recall the struggles and massive demonstrations on the streets of Toronto back in the 1870s.
Canada at the time was changing fast. Rapid immigration fueled our population growth. Cities were expanding and industry was changing. The way by which people worked was changing to meet a transformed industry and economy. Workers were easily replaced if they complained, leaving many unable to speak out against low wages, long work weeks and stressful working conditions. It was illegal to organize workers. It is why in 1872, under these oppressive conditions, the first labour day came to be.
For more than three years the Toronto Printers Union had been lobbying for a shorter work week. Inspired by workers in Hamilton who had started a movement for the nine-hour work day, Toronto printers threatened to strike. When their protests were repeatedly ignored by employers, these workers finally took action on March 25, 1872.
Toronto’s publishing craft was paralyzed. The printers soon had the support of other workers. Three weeks later, on April 14, a group of 2,000 workers marched through the streets in solidarity. They attracted more supporters along the way and when they reached their destination, Queen’s Park, the protest march had grown to 10,000 participants (fully 10 per cent of Toronto’s population at the time).
Employers became startled by this collective action. Led by Liberal George Brown, founder of the Toronto Globe, publishers quickly retaliated. Brown brought in workers from other towns – today we would call them ‘scabs’ – to replace the printers. He took action to quell the strike and had the strike leaders charged and arrested for criminal conspiracy.
Conservative Prime Minister John A. Macdonald watched events in Toronto unfold and quickly saw the political benefit of throwing his lot behind the workers. Macdonald spoke out against Brown’s actions, gaining the support of the workers and embarrassing Brown’s Liberals at the same time. Macdonald tabled the Trade Union Act, which repealed an outdated British law that criminalized unions. The strike leaders were released from jail.
In the process of these unfolding events workers discovered that some measure of power could rest in their hands. By being taking risks, being engaged, and then taking action, their working conditions could change for the better. This is as true now as it was back then.
Think about it. OPSEU members worked hard to defeat the PCs in the June provincial election. In the public service work we perform each day, OPSEU members actively improve living conditions in communities across the province. We are “doers.”
Now, as autumn approaches, we will keep working towards a better province by saying ‘no’ to privatization and outsourcing; ‘no’ to actions that increase inequality in all its forms; ‘no’ to concessions and suppressed wages.
We are progressives. We say ‘yes’ to human rights; ‘yes’ to greater participation in the political system, and ‘yes’ to a solid and sustainable quality public services.
That is why we will hold the Liberal provincial government to the same standards at bargaining tables, community meetings and through the media. The collective voice of more than 130,000 OPSEU members will hold the majority Liberals to account, as the government proceeds with its austerity agenda. Their agenda items present many threats to OPSEU members. It also threatens public services that were created and maintained for people, not profits.
So, no matter where you find yourself this Labour Day weekend, take a few moments to think about Canada’s labour history. The links between the 1870s and the early 2000s are stronger than you may think.
The actions of working people and organized labour are key to our future prosperity. They helped to build Ontario. Their actions over many decades helped all workers, organized or not, secure the rights and benefits many still enjoy today.
Have a great Labour Day!
Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida,