Highlights in Canadian labour history

Labour Day is more than just the unofficial end to summer - a fact many Canadians tend to forget.
Labour Day was established to recognize the contribution workers have made to society. The holiday in Canada can trace its roots to 1872, when a parade was held in support of the striking Toronto Typographical Union. ((Reuters))
Fire up the barbeque, Labour Day has arrived.

Celebrated across the country, the holiday is often thought of as the last hurrah before kids head back to school and the long, hot days of summer give way to the crisp, fading days of autumn.

But Labour Day is more than just the unofficial end to summer — a fact many Canadians tend to forget.

"Last year, because we were reading an article about Labour Day, I asked my students how many of them went to see the Labour Day parade, or how many of them knew anything about Labour Day, and it absolutely had no connection to them whatsoever," said Laurel MacDowell, professor of labour history at the University of Toronto. "They simply see it as a day off."

The Labour Day holiday, however, was established to recognize the contribution that ordinary working people have made to the Canadian way of life, said Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

"The union movement has built a very large part of society, both in terms of the way people are paid, but also in terms of people's rights," he said.

This includes the right to fair wages, safe working conditions and compensation for injury, and equitable labour relations.

"Lots of people lost their lives in order to establish the right to refuse unsafe work and the right to be treated fairly and without discrimination," said Georgetti. "We've done a lot and we're very proud of it."

Despite the changing priorities of the Canadian workforce and the evolution of labour issues unions still serve an important purpose for workers, Georgetti said, and at the beginning of 2008, about four-and-a-half million Canadians, or nearly 26 per cent of the civilian labour force, belonged to a union.

'We're at a real turning point. We've got to decide what kind of workforce and what kind of society we're going to have.'—Laurel MacDowell, professor

"The No. 1 reason why people join a union today, still, is that they want to make sure that their health and safety is protected, and they want to be treated fairly," he said. "We do have better pay, we have less accidents at work, we're more productive and we drive the economy a lot more than the people who don't make the wages that our members make."

"Yet successive conservative governments, and some liberal governments, seem only too willing to try and take those rights away from us," he added.

Although Georgetti said Canada is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to labour relations, he added the country still has some way to go when compared to European, and especially Scandinavian, models, where there is a much higher standard of living and a better quality of life for all citizens.

Labour historian MacDowell agrees.

"Europe is doing a lot better," she said, especially since countries began the globalization process. "They said, yes, we want free trade; no, we are not prepared to give up some of our social standards and our environmental standards." 

MacDowell said the problem with government in North America is that it continues to define public interest as being corporate interest, often at the society's expense.

"I now have students who are coming out of university with $30,000 in debt, and they can't find anything except crummy service jobs. They're in non-standards jobs, they've got no benefits, they've got long workdays, they've got really bad conditions, and I think, this is progress?

"We're at a real turning point. We've got to decide what kind of workforce and what kind of society we're going to have."

However the Canadian labour landscape, or attitudes towards the holiday, may have shifted over the years, there is still a place for Labour Day.

"The original principal — that people who work should have a day to celebrate their role in the economy and a day for recreation — is still valid," said MacDowell.

So, Labour Day, here's to you. 

Highlights in Canadian labour history

On this last long weekend of the summer, in honour of the labour movement and all it has done to recognize the role workers have had in building Canadian society, here is a look back at some of the milestones along the way, starting with how the holiday began:

The Toronto Typographical Union strike and the Trade Unions Act, 1872

The Toronto Typographical Union takes up the cause of the "Nine-Hour Movement" and goes out on strike March 25, 1872, when its demands for a shorter work week are ignored. A few weeks later, on April 14, a parade is organized in Toronto to show support for the striking workers. Ten thousand people participate. George Brown, politician and editor of the Toronto Globe, hits back by launching legal action against the striking workers. At the time, union activity is still a criminal act under Canadian law. Brown has police arrest and jail 24 members of the strike committee for conspiracy. The arrests are much protested, and the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, promises to repeal the "barbarous" anti-union laws. The Trade Unions Act is passed by Parliament on June 14, 1872, legalizing unions. In the years following, parades are organized in honour of the Toronto demonstration. The celebration is officially recognized on July 23, 1894 when the federal government, under Prime Minister John Thompson, makes Labour Day a national holiday.

Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital, 1889

The federal government establishes the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital. In its report, the commission notes that many workers were being hurt on the job. It condemns oppressive working conditions in many industries. The commission makes a string of recommendations to improve working conditions - but the federal government does not act on them, saying to do so would infringe on provincial authority.

Federal Department of Labour established, 1900

The Conciliation Act of 1900 establishes voluntary conciliation of a labour dispute and results in the creation of the Labour Department. The office is meant to assist in the prevention and settlement of trade disputes. Previously, labour matters were handled by the Postmaster General. William Lyon MacKenzie King is appointed the department's first deputy minister and later becomes the first minister of Labour after his election to parliament in 1909.

Workmen's Compensation Act, Ontario, 1914

Ontario becomes the first province in Canada to introduce a state social insurance plan with the Workmen's Compensation Act. Prior to this legislation, the only recourse for employees injured on the job is to sue their employers for damages, but as lawsuits increase, employers turn to the government seeking an insurance plan for industrial accidents. The government issues a Royal Commission to be led by Sir William Meredith. In his final report, released in 1913, Meredith suggests a trade-off where workers give up their right to sue in exchange for compensation. He advocates for no-fault insurance. The Act is modeled after his recommendations.

The Winnipeg General Strike, 1919

In the years following the First World War, high unemployment rates and inflation contribute to growing unrest amongst members of the labour movement. In May 1919, after talks break down between workers in the building and metal trades and their employers, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council call for a general strike. More than  30,000 workers from different occupations, both public and private sector, across the city walk off their jobs, crippling the city. The strike ends June 25, but not before "Bloody Saturday" when the RCMP charge a group of strikers, resulting in 30 casualties and one death.

Wartime labour relations regulations, Order-in-Council P.C. 1003, 1944

Labour relations fall under provincial jurisdiction, but during the Second World War the federal government, exercising its emergency wartime powers, establishes a national system of labour-relations law. From the privy council order comes the introduction of a labour relations board, but P.C. 1003 also establishes provisions on the certification of unions, the legal obligation for both parties to enter into good-faith collective bargaining, and prohibitions on unfair labour practices. The order is abolished at the close of the war, but similar provincial legislation is enacted across the country in 1948.

Federal Public Service Staff Relations Act, 1967

In 1965, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers defies government policies and stages an illegal, country-wide strike. At issue is the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike, higher wages and better management. The strike lasts two weeks and is one of the largest "wildcat" strikes in Canadian history. As a result of the labour dispute, the government extends collective bargaining rights to the public service, although some workers, like the RCMP and the military, are excluded.

Common Front, Quebec, 1972

After years of unrest between the labour movement and the Quebec provincial government, three public service unions unite in 1972 in the Common Front to negotiate with the government for higher wages and better working conditions. On the province's refusal, over 200,000 union members from government, education and social services hit the picket lines. The general strike lasts 10 days. It ends with the imprisonment of the three union presidents and legislation ordering employees back to work.

Occupational Health Act, Saskatchewan, 1972

Saskatchewan passes the Occupational Health Act, considered the first legislation of its kind in North America. The act makes health and safety the joint responsibility of management and workers and sets the framework for future legislation, enshrining three important rights for workers:

  • The right to know about hazards and dangers in the workplace.
  • The right to participate in health and safety issues through a workplace committee.
  • The right to refuse unsafe work.

Day of Protest, 1976

A year after the federal government introduces wage and price control legislation, the Canadian Labour Congress sponsors a national Day of Protest to mark the anniversary. Over a million workers are estimated to have participated in demonstrations across the country.

Supreme Court of Canada's ruling on Bill 29, 2007

The Supreme Court of Canada rules that the British Columbia government violated Charter rights when it introduced legislation that would unfairly affect its unionized health-care and social services employees. The provincial legislation would have taken away a number of protections provided for by previous collective agreements. The court's decision reverses 20 years of Charter jurisprudence on workplace association rights.