Origins of Labour Day
In a time when the news of labour "strife" is dominated by disputes between millionaire athletes and
billionaire owners, 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
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 15 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 NAC/C-58640).|
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
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
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.