It started on a spring day in 1872 when a group of Toronto printers went on strike.1 For years, they had been asking, pleading, and finally demanding employers to decrease their hours to a nine-hour work day and a fifty-eight-hour work week.
Look at those numbers again – nine and fifty-eight! Nowadays, working those kinds of hours is seen as “burning the midnight oil.” While there are a few professions that demand such gruelling shifts from time to time, most of those are well-compensated. But in 1872, workers had to sacrifice their health and family time just to keep their jobs, usually for very little pay. Week after week, year after year.
Outraged, a local politician and newspaper magnate named George Brown had the strike leaders arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy. But the local trade unions didn’t back down. Inspired by the bravery of the printers, a group of two thousand workers began marching in the streets on April 14. As they paraded through Toronto, more and more people flocked to join them. By the time they reached a park in the heart of the city, their number had swelled to over ten thousand – one-tenth of the entire population.
This was the first Labour Day.
Soon, the workers’ message spread to every corner of Canada. Unions and labour movements of every type and description began campaigning for shorter hours, better pay, and more rights.
For the printers, their brave stand ended in temporary defeat. Most lost their jobs, and many felt compelled to leave Toronto. But the sacrifice of their homes and livelihood was not in vain. Parades and festivals in support of the Nine Hour Movement became an annual celebration. These events were so large, they inspired American labour leaders to take similar action. Within a few years, the Canadian government abolished most anti-union laws. And in 1894, Labour Day became the official holiday we know so well today.
These days, most of us think of Labour Day as the last holiday of summer. But we also think of the standard workday as eight hours, and the standard workweek as forty.
None of that would be possible were it not thanks to the thousands of workers who fought so hard to make it so.
So, this Labour Day, as you fire up the grill or unpack the picnic basket, spare a thought for the origins of the holiday, and the courageous Toronto printers who started it all.
1 James H. Marsh, “Origins of Labour Day,” Historica Canada, September 1, 2013. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/origins-of-labour-day-feature/