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Labour Day-September 5, 2011

What is it?

For most of us, Labour Day symbolizes the last long weekend of the summer, the last chance to take the kids on a vacation before it is back to school and is a time to celebrate with fireworks, picnics and other fun activities. This Labour Day, while you are celebrating and enjoying an extra long weekend, think about the reasons we celebrate it every year.

The origins of Labour Day becoming an official holiday began back in the 1880’s. Unions were striking for a 58 hour work week and 9 hour work days. During this time, many countries recognized the need for unions but in Canada trade unions were still illegal and striking was seen as a conspiracy to disrupt trade.

In December of 1872, there was a parade staged in support of the Toronto Typographical Union’s strike for the 58 hour work week. 27 unions from the trades demonstrated and 24 union leaders were arrested. The arrests lead to a demonstration in Ottawa on September 3rd in protest. 7 unions marched that day and Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald made a promise to repeal the anti-union laws. In June of the following year, the trade union act was passed and all unions started demanding a 54 hour work week.

Labour Day festivities were traditionally organized by trade unions to campaign and celebrate workers rights. Labour Day was originally celebrated in the spring but it was moved to the fall after 1894 and is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

For women, Labour Day is an important time to remember that we continue to struggle for equity in the workplace.  In Ontario, women still earn 29% of what men earn and the pay equity gap has not been an issue with provincial governments since the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris.

Women in marginalized communities face lower wages that other women; especially if they are Aboriginal women, women of colour, immigrant women or women with disabilities. Employment equity was also stopped by the Mike Harris government. 

Women workers are also more likely to work in part-time, contract and short-term jobs where they largely work for minimum wages, often in poor working conditions with few, if any, benefits.  Even when women achieve similar post-secondary education, they are less likely to reap the same rewards as men and women continue to face the ‘glass ceiling’ in more senior levels of business management.

On the job, women continue to face sexual harassment and workplace violence. They also represent only a minority of workers in traditional male-dominated, higher paying jobs, such as trades and technology work.

For women, the struggle for pay and employment equity has been a long one that continues today. While the Labour movement has won many victories for fairer wages and working conditions, we still need organized labour action to continue achieve equality in the workplace for all workers.  Progressive labour unions and workers’ groups now take up the issues of equity and social justice as part of their agenda and join in solidarity with community social justice advocates in reaching our mutual goals.

What you can do:

Recognize that many of the benefits we take for granted in our workplaces, even if we don’t work in a unionized workplace, were won by organized labour, including shorter work weeks and days, holiday periods, employment benefits, health and safety legislation, progress on environmental conditions, and much more.

Resist the trend to blame unions and working people for economic recessions or lack of jobs.

Support labour movement campaigns for higher wages, better and safer working conditions, pay and employment equity and social justice for workers.

Oppose exploitation of migrant workers, part-time, contract and temporary workers and domestic workers who are often subjected to unfair and sometimes illegal labour practices.

Support public funding for child care, job benefits, employment insurance, pensions and other supports for low-income workers, especially women whose lower wages and child care responsibilities often reduce their access to or benefits from these supports.

Get in touch with your local Labour Council and join the Labour Day Parade or activities in your community.