As I enjoyed the last long weekend of summer, it occurred to me that I had only a foggy notion of why we have a “Labour Day” statutory holiday. It turns out that there are good, if distant, reasons for this particular day of leisure.

Labour Day is observed, under a variety of names, in many countries. In most of the world, it takes place on May 1st of each year. In North America it has become a September tradition.

Labour Day in Canada has its roots in a workers’ strike which occurred in Toronto in early 1872. It started with a dispute between the members of the Toronto Typographical Union and the Toronto Globe newspaper. The employees sought a reduced work week (I’ve seen varied reports, but it seems they wanted it reduced to 9 hours per day, 6 days per week).

The 19th century was not, generally, a friendly time for wage workers. The working day was lengthy, conditions were poor, days off were few, and labour unions were in their infancy.

For me, that period brings to mind Bob Cratchit shivering away each day at work until closing at 7:00pm and meekly asking Ebeneezer Scrooge for a day off with pay each Christmas. Dickens’ book was written in 1843 and I have to think that, comparatively speaking, Cratchit’s work situation was better than most.

In Britain, the 19th century finally saw the introduction of a series of statutes called Factory Acts to improve working conditions. In 1802, the allowable work day for children was reduced to 12 hours. The 1833 Act prohibited the employment children under the age of 9 and in 1844 the work day for children was limited to six and a half hours.

The 1850 Act restricted daily working hours for women and children (to 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in summer, 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. in winter). Labour unions had only been permitted (and only on a limited basis) in England since 1825 as a result of the passage of Britain’s Combination Act.

Any wage worker living in the mid-1800s would, surely, have been flabbergasted by the range of employee protections contained in B.C.‘s present-day Employment Standards Act, Human Rights Code, Workers Compensation Act, and Labour Relations Code.

In 1872, when the members of the Toronto Typographical Union resorted to a strike, there were still active laws prohibiting trade union activity in Canada. Such collective action was considered a criminal conspiracy in restraint of trade.

Upon complaint by the Toronto Globe newspaper about the workers’ collective action, police arrested 24 members of the TTU for conspiracy. This prompted other labour leaders to stage demonstrations in protest.

One such parade took place on city streets in April of 1872 in front of thousands of Torontonians. Another occurred in Ottawa that September, complete with a marching band and firemen carrying torches.

The story I’ve seen is that the Ottawa parade passed the home of Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and that he was swept along with it to City Hall. Later in the day, he gave a speech in which he promised to eliminate the barbarous laws prohibiting union activity.

The federal Trade Union Act was soon passed and the age of trade unionism in Canada was officially born. Union celebrations continued annually each spring and, in 1904, Labour Day was made an annual holiday each September.

If I’m any indication, many Canadians are hazy about the circumstances which gave rise to Labour Day over one hundred years ago. Perhaps, once a year, we might all dedicate a quick thought to the pioneers who braved criminal charges in order to advance the cause of workers’ rights.

Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log onto www.pushormitchell.com. Past “Legal Ease” columns, may be viewed at http://www.pushormitchell.com/law-library/publication/legal-ease. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice.

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