Labour Day: A Brief History

Next Monday is Labour Day and as we all know, Labour Day has fallen on hard times as of late.  North American consumer culture keeps chugging along; therefore, many workers (labourers, if you will) have to work on the first Monday of September.  For the rest of us, it’s the last long weekend of the summer — time to heat up the barbeque, cool off the drinks and relax one last time – cuz pretty soon the great Canadian winter is going to bring us six months of snow and Hockey Night in Canada.  However, as you’re sitting with a cold one — fat, dumb and happy that the kids are going back to school on Tuesday – here are a few historical tidbits to chew on before the steaks are ready.

Legend has it that Labour Day is actually a Canadian invention.  It’s the result of two canny Conservative Prime Ministers and a hard-case Liberal newspaper editor.  I don’t know if the story’s exactly true or not, but I’ve heard it told this way a couple of times, so it’s mostly true.  Besides, it makes a good story.

In 1872, the Typographical Union of Toronto was on strike against The Toronto Globe newspaper – which, by the way, is the great-grandfather of today’s Globe and Mail.  The noted Liberal politician, George Brown, was none too happy about this, since he had founded the Globe in 1844, and it was his paper they were striking against.  He rooted around in his law books for a while until he found some antiquated anti-labour laws and had the strike leaders arrested for conspiracy – 24 of them!  Other labour leaders decided not to take this sitting down and organized a mass rally in Ottawa for the first Monday of September, 1873.

Remember, Canada was less than a decade old at this point, and there was great concern that the shiny new Dominion would not survive.  Socialists roaming the streets, making outrageous demands (a 54 hour work-week, for one) were seen as a serious threat to the orderly conduct of business and to the country.)

Enter, Prime Minister, Sir john A. Macdonald (who has also fallen on hard times as of late) but is still one of the wiliest politicians this country has ever produced.  In 1873, Macdonald’s government was up against the wall.  (Long story short: they’d been taking bribes from railroad companies — really, really big bribes.)  So, where other people saw lawless socialists attacking the foundations of our nation, Sir John saw potential votes and a chance to slap the crap out of the Liberals.  He promised the marchers, as God was his witness, to repeal the anti-union laws.  Unfortunately, the railroad bribes were so big that Macdonald’s government didn’t survive.  Fortunately, his promise did.  The Trade Union Act of Canada was passed in 1874.  Pretty soon, everybody and his brother (pun intended) were legally demanding things like a 54 hour work-week and time to eat their lunch — and those September marches continued.

Meanwhile, in the USA and over in Europe, trade unionists were working away, trying their best to get a few decent working conditions themselves.  Internationally, labour leaders all had the same agenda.  They wanted something a little better than legalized slavery for their people.  Then, if there was any good will left over, they figured a little dignity for the working man would be nice, too.  Most union demonstrations revolved around May 1st.  The thinking was that people would come out and join spring demonstrations after a long winter.  Plus, the trade union/radical/socialist message could tag team with May Day celebrations already in progress.  After all, May Day stuff — like music and street fairs and dancing around a pole — had always been the practice of common folk.  Obviously, the thinking was sound because the idea caught on.  Today, May 1st is universally recognized as International Worker’s Day — and it’s a legal holiday in over 80 countries!

Back in Canada, the trade union movement was growing apace and in the industrial heartland of the northeastern United States, it was exploding – almost literally.  On May 1st, 1894, labour disputes erupted in violent and deadly clashes in Cleveland, Ohio.  Then, at the end of June, the first large interstate labour action took place: railroad workers in several states staged a boycott in what came to be known as The Pullman Strike.  Just as an aside, American President Cleveland ordered federal troops to put down the strike.  Hundreds of people were injured and 13 union workers were killed.  However, this isn’t important to our main story.

Our Prime Minister at the time, John Sparrow Thompson (never heard of him have you?) saw what was happening in America and around the world and decided to defuse the situation before it got started.  As the Pullman Strike in the US was entering its fourth week, on July 23, 1894, his government declared that the first Monday in September would be a national holiday.  It would be in the tradition of those original Ottawa trade union marches — dedicated to the labour movement and appropriately called Labour Day.*  The more cynical historians say this was simply a move to draw attention away from May 1st.   Whatever Thompson’s motivation, even though Canada had its share of labour pains, it avoided most of the bloody clashes that characterized the international labour movement — situations like the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1896, which started as a peaceful May Day union march and ended up scattered with corpses — over twenty dead.

Labour Day was a small concession to the early trade union movement, but it demonstrated that Canada and Canadians do recognize the importance of ordinary working people.  So, if you get a minute between long weekend activities, lift your glass to the men and women who got seriously kicked around to gave us this holiday.  Good on ya, folks!

*President Grover Cleveland also created an American Labor Day less than a month later.

May Day: A Contemporary View

I’m old enough to remember when May Day smelled of wool socks and carried a hammer.  The marchers wore clean clothes back then, carried red banners and were awkwardly polite.  Around the world, Brezhnev strutted his missiles and Castro raged volumes into the bright Caribbean sun.  In those days, “The Internationale” still had those goofy lyrics.  Yes, I’m older than Billy Bragg, but once, he and I and maybe a hundred other people, stood stock-still and sang his new version of that old song.  Most of them had clenched fists.  This was in the way-back time when communism still had a future and not just an imaginary past.

Those of us who grew up in the cause de jour 60s remember when communism went from industrial worker in a soft cloth hat and baggy pants to celebrity outlaw in camo-green and black beret.  Somewhere between the Gulf of Tonkin and the Tet Offensive, communism became cool again.  Academics sprouted beards and spouted doctrine.   Marx and Lenin fought it out with Trotsky and Mao in college pubs and coffee shops.  Workers marched, and students told them why.  Those were heady days: late night basement meetings and manifestos.  Old, boot-faced men who had worked on the Dnieper dam or fought in Spain spoke in mildewed halls.  Grey-haired girls who had given their youth to the movement went first into the police barricades.  “They won’t hit me; I’m a grandmother!”  But they did.  And all the young, smooth-faced converts were eager to worship their newfound economic religion.  They were all together then.  Yet, with all the talk and more talk, the workers of the world never did unite under anything more than their national flags.  Communism was cool, but it wasn’t very effective.

May Day was special, though.  Ideological differences were put aside, and for one brief, shining moment, the workers did march shoulder to shoulder — their grievances with each other forgotten in the face of a common enemy.  Normally they ended up at the old Cambie pub or the Drake for a pint after the speeches were done.  Doctrine be damned: walking was thirsty work.  These were the folks who took the early bus, ate their lunch out of metal kits and bought sturdy shoes at the Army and Navy store.  Office staff and salespeople might get a three-day Labour Day long weekend in September, but May the First was the sore shoulder workers’ day, and they kept in sacred.

May Day, like much of the Western communist movement, came out of a combination of American action and European philosophy.  It commemorates the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886.  During a labour demonstration, everything went horribly wrong when somebody (who has remained nameless to this day) tossed a bomb at the police.  The cops opened fire.  Several people were killed, and there have been serious accusations ever since.  Three years later, at the Second International in Paris, the French delegation read a letter from Samuel Gompers.  (Sam was the head honcho of the newly formed American Federation of Labor.)  It outlined American Labour’s plans to organize rallies and marches for the third anniversary of the massacre.  The French proposed that on May 1st, European workers march in solidarity with their American brothers (sisters didn’t really count yet.)  The motion was passed, and organized labour has been taking to the streets on the first day of May ever since.  Actually, May Day is an official holiday in over 80 countries.

In the 21st century, May Day, like communism, has fallen on hard times.  There are still the big rallies in all the European capitals.   But Moscow doesn’t pull out all the stops in the march through Red Square anymore, and Castro is too sick to do anything but write letters to the editor.  God only knows what the workers will be forced to do in Pyongyang, and whatever Beijing comes up with … well… that’s just false advertising, isn’t it?

In North America, May Day has always been more about organized labour than labour itself.  Union members come out to listen to their nabobs try their best to resurrect the 19th century, when the battle lines were clearly drawn.  However, it’s getting harder and harder for union leaders to convince the rest of us that organized labour is in a life-and-death struggle with capitalist greed.  These days, union dues buy sports franchises, and pension plans fund hotels and tourist destinations.  Organized labour carry stock portfolios worthy of JP Morgan Chase and BNP Paribas.

May Day has come a long way from the Haymarket in Chicago, and so has communism.  Both were born as a downtrodden backlash against the Industrial Revolution; both rose to become an emblematic certainty of a better future, and both are fading away as their usefulness declines.  A few people will still march tomorrow, but they will be carrying Smart phones, not lunch buckets.  Their brand-name jeans will be made in Asia and when it’s over they’ll drive away in Toyotas and Hyundais.   It isn’t Animal Farm yet, but it’s getting pretty close.