Hundreds of people took part in Toronto's annual Labour Day parade that made its way with banners and flags through downtown streets on Monday.

The theme of the parade, organized by Toronto and York Region Labour Council, was "We Stand for Fairness."

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, told Metro Morning that Labour Day is a day to celebrate gains made by Canadian unions, to march in the streets to show support for unions, and to renew focus on the work ahead for the labour movement.

He said it's a day to remember that unions fought for such things as health and safety at work, decent pensions, fair wages, parental leave and paid vacations.

"I think, for the most part, most people don't appreciate the work that the labour movement has put in to achieve these things," Yussuff said Monday.

Hassan Yussuff

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, says Labour Day is a day to celebrate, march in the streets and reflect on the work ahead. (CBC)

"We have to do a better job of telling the story. Otherwise, Canadians don't know. I think it's a reflection, of course, of how far we have come but also of the challenges as we move into the 21st century economy and what we need to do to help Canadians have a better life."

Precarious work is major issue

Yussuff said the work ahead for unions includes pushing for safer workplaces, free of asbestos, and for permanent, full-time jobs, especially for young people.

In Ontario, unions are keeping a close eye on a provincial review of the Labour Relations Act, which governs collective bargaining, and the Employment Standards Act, which governs such things as minimum wages, hours of work and public holidays. The council said in a statement that it believes it should be easier for Ontario workers to join a union, improve their working conditions and earn a living wage.

"You know, most people will say, we have achieved all of these things. We don't need the labour movement around," Yussuff said.

But part-time precarious employment is a major issue, he said.

Toronto Labour Day parade

A banner calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage at Toronto's Labour Day parade. Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, says the "Fight for $15" campaign is one of the priorities of Canada's labour movement. (CBC)

"There's more people working precarious employment today that don't enjoy the same rights that many workers take for granted. They don't have regular hours. They don't get sick leave."

Yussuff said it's also a good time for unions to push for a higher minimum wage.

He said Toronto has a rich labour history and that local history is being celebrated Monday. For example, he said, workers in Toronto went on strike to get a nine-hour work day in 1872. That strike, part of a larger campaign called the "Nine Hour Movement," was unsuccessful but he said it helped to lay the groundwork for the shorter work day that Canadians workers enjoy today.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who spoke in downtown Toronto before the parade got underway, called for new legislation that would make it easier for workers in the province to join unions.

Horwath said the legislation is needed in part because many young people in the labour force face low wages, unpredictable scheduling, no benefits and little security. 

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath spoke before Toronto's annual Labour Day parade on Monday, calling for more job security for young people and new legislation to ensure workers can join unions. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"We're fighting to make sure that young workers can get a good job and build a better life," she said.

Horwath said the NDP believes Ontario workers deserve a $15 minimum wage, that temporary workers deserve the same wages and benefits as permanent workers doing the same job, and that workers have the right to join unions.

"Too many people today find themselves struggling to get by and fearful that it will be much worse for the next generation of Ontarians," said Horwath. 

"It's up to us to change that. If there is one great lesson of Labour Day, it's that we can rise to that challenge."

The parade, which started at city hall, went along Queen Street West before it moved south on Dufferin Street to the Canadian National Exhibition grounds.