The Origins of Labour Day

The fight of the Toronto printers had a second, lasting legacy. The parades held in support of the Nine-Hour Movement and the printers’ strike led to an annual celebration.

In a time when the news of labour “strife” is dominated by unemployment and complaints about the disruptive power of unions, history provides a useful perspective on a time when working people had to fight to work less than 12 hours a day. The “Nine-Hour Movement” began in Hamilton, Ontario, and then spread to Toronto where its demands were taken up by the Toronto Printer’s Union.

In 1869 the union sent a petition to their employers requesting a weekly reduction in hours per week to 58, placing itself in the forefront of the industrialized world in the fight for shorter hours. Their request was refused outright by the owners of the printing shops, most vehemently by George Brown of the Globe.

By 1872 the union’s stand had hardened from a request to a demand and a threat to strike. The employers called the demand for a shorter workweek “foolish”, “absurd” and “unreasonable.” As a result, on March 25, 1872 the printers went on strike.

On April 14 a demonstration was held to show solidarity among the workers of Toronto. A parade of some 2000 workers marched through the city, headed by two marching bands. By the time that the parade reached Queen’s Park, the sympathetic crowd had grown to 10,000.

The employers fought the strikers by bringing in replacement workers from small towns. George Brown launched a counterattack by launching a legal action against the union for “conspiracy.” Brown’s action revealed the astonishing fact that according to the laws of Canada union activity was indeed considered a criminal offense. Under the law, which dated back to 1792, police arrested and jailed the 24 members of the strike committee.

On 15 May 1872, Hamilton's "nine-hour pioneers" defied opposition with a procession of 1500 workers (Canadian Illustrated News, courtesy Library

As history tells it, however, Brown had overplayed his hand. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald had been watching the Nine-Hour Movement with curious interest, “his big nose sensitively keen,” wrote historian Donald Creighton, “like an animal’s for any scent of profit or danger.” The scent of profit came from the fact that Macdonald’s old Liberal rival George Brown had made himself a hated man among the workers of Canada.

Macdonald was quick to capitalize. In Ottawa, he spoke to a crowd at city hall, promising to wipe the “barbarous laws” restricting labour from the books. Macdonald then came to the rescue of the imprisoned men and on June 14 passed a Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected union activity. Macdonald’s move not only embarrassed his rival Brown but also earned him the enduring support of the working class.

For the strikers themselves, the short-term effects were very damaging. Many lost their jobs and were forced to leave Toronto. The long-term effects, however, were positive. After 1872 almost all union demands included the 54-hour week. Thus the Toronto printers were pioneers of the shorter workweek in North America. The movement did not reach places such as Chicago or New York until the turn of the century.

The fight of the Toronto printers had a second, lasting legacy. The parades held in support of the Nine-Hour Movement and the printers’ strike led to an annual celebration. In 1882 American labour leader Peter J. McGuire witnessed one of these labour festivals in Toronto. Inspired, he returned to New York and organized the first American “labour day” on September 5 of the same year.

Throughout the 1880s pressure built in Canada to declare a national labour holiday and on July 23, 1894 the government of Sir John Thompson passed a law making Labour Day official. A huge Labour Day parade took place in Winnipeg that year. It stretched some 5 kilometres. The tradition of a Labour Day celebration quickly spread across Canada and the continent. It had all begun in Toronto with the brave stand of the printers’ union.

James Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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