Labour Day's Radical Roots

By Mark Leier
2 September 2013

Contemporary labour activists might find inspiration in the history of Labour Day. It isn't a simple lesson of how to fight for a statutory holiday. It is a broader one about the nature of political struggle, reform and militancy.

The federal government created the holiday in 1894, and the labour movement deserves the credit for it. But Labour Day was not something labour specifically struggled for and won. The real significance of the holiday is in the broader struggle that pushed the government to make concessions and in a movement that dared to aim high.

The 'labour question'

The formal request for a holiday to celebrate labour came in 1889 in the report of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital. The commission produced five volumes of testimony and analysis and dozens of recommendations. These ranged from separate factory washrooms for men and women to arbitration boards to shorter hours to better regulation of railways and the oil industry. Among the recommendations was the suggestion "that one day in the year, to be known as Labour Day, be set apart as a holiday by the Government."

None of the recommendations were taken up by the government of the day. Workers continued to celebrate Labour Day and May Day without the benefit of a statutory holiday, as they had for years. Five years and two prime ministers later, Labour Day was proclaimed, but it is not clear that the government had consulted the report of the Royal Commission. What is clear is that the government was responding to a wave of worker militancy, strikes and radicalism.

By 1886, when John A. Macdonald created the Royal Commission, workers had made the "labour question" the most important issue of the day. It was not an abstract question. It was impressed upon the minds of politicians and capitalists by workers across North America who used strikes and street protests with increasing frequency and militancy.

1872 saw the movement for the nine-hour workday culminate in a Toronto printers' strike and several thousand workers marching in the streets in support. In the U.S., the railway strike of 1877 broke out in several states and mobilized tens of thousands of workers who engaged in running battles with police, state militia and federal troops in what became known as the Great Upheaval.

The 1880s saw even more strikes; 425 took place in Canada, double the number of the previous decade. Workers formed new unions, federations and councils; the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, for example, was created in 1889 to provide a single, strong voice for the city's workers.

Birth of a political movement

Perhaps most worrisome to the authorities was the growth of the Knights of Labor, which organized not just the skilled trades, but all workers, including women. Pierre Berton's grandfather, Phillips Thompson, was a Knight of Labor and in his book, The Politics of Labor, published in 1887, he warned "capitalism is a wrong, an usurpation, and a growing menace to popular freedom."

In language that is echoed by the Occupy movement, Thompson pointed out that "the poverty of the many is caused by the unearned, and therefore stolen, wealth of the few."

At the same time, workers engaged in political action, supporting those Liberals and Conservatives who supported labour and running their own candidates. In B.C., four "workingmen's candidates" ran in the 1886 provincial election. One of the candidates was Samuel Myers, a miner and a Knight of Labor, who ran against the infamous coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. Myers lost the election and the following year would lose his life in a Nanaimo coal mine explosion that killed 147 workers.

This rising militancy pushed Macdonald to launch the investigation into the relations of labour and capital.

In his view, the "labour question" prompted by the Knights of Labor was as critical a political issue as Louis Riel, temperance, and Irish Home Rule.

By 1894, the creation of Labour Day was almost an afterthought, the belated recognition of the fact of the growing and increasingly radical labour movement across Canada and the U.S.

Labour's downhill slide

What is clear from this is that changes in the law, including holidays, come as a response to labour's militancy, not as a reward for workers staying quiet. Labour influences the political agenda when it is active in the streets, the workplace and the ballot box, when it develops new tactics and forms of organization, and when it poses alternatives to "business as usual."

It is not so clear that the union leadership has always grasped this lesson. It has usually been the radical edge of the labour movement that created new movements and organized new constituencies, from the Knights of Labor to the Industrial Workers of the World to the Communist Party and the early CCF, to the Canadian Association of Industrial, Mechanical and Allied Workers (CAIMAW) to the Service, Office and Retail Workers' Union of Canada (SORWUC) and to contemporary rank and file activists.

But too often these dissident movements have been purged from the so-called main house of labour. Without that creative rebel energy, new ideas and new directions rarely emerge.

If strike activity is an indication of militancy, then Canadian labour has lost momentum.

In 1919, when the population of Canada was about 8.3 million, worker-days on strike totaled 3,401,843. In 2011, with a population of 33.4 million, worker-days on strike totaled only 1,966,587. More recently, Canadians spent 10.6 hours on the picket line in 1976; in 2011, that was down to a single hour.

During that same period, governments have made it harder for unions to organize, wages have stagnated, the minimum wage is worth less than it was 35 years ago, the working day has lengthened, social benefits have declined and employers have been successful in decertification drives across the country.

No one likes strikes, and 2013 is not 1976 or 1919. Nonetheless, one lesson from the history of Labour Day may be that the best defence is a good offence.

Mark Leier is a historian at Simon Fraser University. The second revised edition of his book, Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolution, Mystic, Labour Spy, was published by New Star Books in September 2013.

Originally published in The Tyee