For Labour Day 2020, we’re taking a trip into the past and telling you the story of the very first Labour Day. Have you ever wondered where it all started? The answer is Toronto—way back in 1872.
The first thing to understand is that unions were illegal at the time due to an archaic British law that was still in effect in Canada. But the winds of change were already blowing. A Canada’s History article describes the situation:
For over three years the Toronto Printers Union had been lobbying its employers for a shorter work week. Inspired by workers in Hamilton who had begun the movement for a nine-hour work day, the Toronto printers threatened to strike if their demands weren’t met. After repeatedly being ignored by their employers, the workers took bold action and on March 25, 1872, they went on strike.
That was just the beginning. Toronto’s publishing industry was paralyzed. 2,000 workers took to the streets clamouring for their rights. In a show of solidarity, thousands more joined their ranks as they marched to Queen’s Park. The crowd would swell to 10,000 protesters—one tenth of the city’s population.
The name to remember in all this commotion is George Brown. He ran the Toronto Globe at that time and did everything in his power to quash the protest. However, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald took the side of the workers. It was Brown versus Macdonald. The prime minister made his move—he passed the Trade Union Act and made unions legal.
None of the workers who had gone on strike were charged with a criminal offence, but some lost their jobs. There’s a great moral to this story. The strike got the attention of employers, the public and, above all, political leaders. Other cities would join the cause, which came to be known as the Nine-Hour Movement. A parade was organized to support unions across Canada. In 1894, under mounting pressure, Prime Minister John Thompson declared Labour Day a national holiday.