The meaning of Labor Day is too important to be lost among the BBQs, pool parties and shopping sales

Contrary to what some might think, Labor Day is not just the symbolic end to summer or the start of the school year. Labor Day is a national holiday that is supposed to remind us of the labor rights our countrymen fought and died for a hundred years ago.

Labor Day in Canada (spelled Labour day) found its roots back in 1872 when a parade was staged in support of the Toronto Typographical Union’s strike for a 58-hour work-week (Can you imagine?) This strike gave birth to annual Labor Day parades across Canada on the first Monday of September.

In 1882, after attending one of these labor parades in Toronto, U.S. labor leader Peter J. McGuire went back to New York and established the first U.S. Labor parade on September 5, 1882. It took a while, but in 1894 Prime Minister Sir John Thompson and President Grover Cleveland both made Labor Day a national holiday.

However, Labor Day did not come easy in the United States; in fact it was passed to conciliate organized labor six days after the Pullman Strike left thirty railroad laborers dead and dozens wounded.

Since those days in the late 19th century, worker’s unions have helped people earn rights in the workplace that were once thought unobtainable. Rights we all take for granted today, and rights certain politicians and corporations would like to see taken away.

Simple things like a five day work week, an eight hour work day, a minimum wage, overtime pay, occupational safety, retirement pension plans, lunch-break laws, and the end to child labor would not be around had it not been for organized labor. What is equally important is the level playing field that these rights helped to bring to Canadians and Americans.

Roughly a century and a half after the first Labor Day parade was held in Toronto, you would be hard pressed to find a labor day parade anywhere in North America. As far as I know, Windsor, Ontario is the only city that has held on to this tradition.

There are many people out there who believe that worker’s unions have come to be obsolete, because we have all the worker’s rights we need. With that kind of thinking, it’s no wonder Labor Day is now taken for granted and has become just another day off from work. Well guess what happens when you take something for granted… You lose it.

In the last forty years, union membership in Canada has declined a little, but in the United States it has declined drastically. Union membership in the US was about 30% in the 1970’s, but has dropped to about 12% today. Along with that drop comes an equal decrease in wages.

I’ve had people tell me the reason behind the decrease in unions is due to the outsourcing of American manufacturing and the obsolescence of the unions themselves.

Well, if that were true, how would you explain the fact that unionization in Canada has stayed relatively steady with the same decrease in manufacturing? How would you explain that countries like Finland and Sweden have a unionization rate closer to 70% and they’re thriving?

In the United States, the service and retail industry has taken over manufacturing as the country’s main source of employment. Unfortunately, “Right to Work” States coupled with anti-union movements and an extraordinary amount of anti-union propaganda on networks like Fox News have kept unions from moving over to the industry that needs them. Hopefully what we see at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart is just the beginning.

Workers’ wages have been stagnant for thirty years even as inflation has risen. Union membership is at its lowest point since the 1930’s. Meanwhile conservatives, Tea Partiers and libertarians alike are looking for ways to worsen the damage.

The importance of Labor Day is too critical to be lost amongst the BBQs, pool parties and shopping sales. I don’t think we’re about to go back to the days where organized labor was illegal or a time where we had to fight for a 58 hour work week. That being said, it is no reason to forget where we came from, how far we’ve come and how much we’ve declined lately.


  1. While Canadian wages have held up in spite of a relatively small decline in union membership, what has happened to corporate profits? Over the last 30 years in America, corporate profits and CEO compensation have soared, in spite of recessions, while union membership has declined along with real wages. The availabilty of consumer credit and the housing bubble masked this for a while, but then came the Great Recession. The bubble burst, banks stopped lending and imposed high interest rates and fees on existing accounts. Suddenly the mask was removed and millions of Americans realized they weren’t as financially secure as they thought they were. In fact, many were wiped out and jobless to boot! But in a two party system where one is completely captive to multi-national corporate overlords, it is going to be extremely difficult to turn this around, inform people and get them to stop voting against their own best interests. I know! Let’s bomb Syria instead!

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