LABOUR DAY What's it all about?

Written by CIHC

On the first Monday, every September, we look forward to the last holiday of the summer before school starts and we get busy with fall activities. But have we ever thought what Labour Day is all about? In the Brantford area, we celebrate with a Soapbox Derby. What has that to do with Labour Day?


The very first Labour Day was celebrated in 1882 in the U.S. and it became the first federal holiday in 1894. Manhattan held the first Labour Day parade with 20,000 people marching and celebrating. Canada followed suit with a national holiday.The history of labour and working classes dates away back in history, but issues became prominent during the Industrial Revolution when small mills evolved into huge factories.

In the changing economy the dream was that workers could hold steady jobs with a living wage which would pay enough for them to afford a comfortable home, a family and a better life for their children.

If workmen were lucky, their employers were good church-going folk like Ignatius Cockshutt and his family, who cared about their employees, gave them some respect, rewarded them for expected good work and their ideas to improve methods and products. They also sponsored immigrant workers and provided infrastructure and social needs as the towns grew. Some employers, however, fought tooth and nail to prevent any further costs which might affect their profits.

In the nineteenth and early 20th century, workers were required to work 10 or more hours every day except Sunday. Working conditions could be grimy, exhausting and very unhealthy, with hot polluted air making it hard to breathe, and many other unsafe conditions.

Canada’s labour movement has a long history of improving workers’ everyday lives. Their leaders fought for shorter working hours, better pay, health and safety protection, workman’s compensation, pensions, childcare and many other features to make life more liveable.

In Toronto, in March, 1872, Toronto Typographical Union members walked off the job in an attempt to get a nine-hour day. With a crowd of 10,000 supporters at a rally at Queen’s Park, arrests were made, but the community supported those arrested. This event instigated Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to introduce the Trade Union Act, legalizing and protecting unions. This in turn galvanized the movement for workers to form and join unions. Industries in Brantford thrived under Macdonald’s National Policy which offered tariff protection. As well, agriculture in the West was opening up and demand was great for equipment. The big agricultural industries, Massey and Cockshutt in Brantford expanded quickly worldwide.

As times changed, fluctuating economic conditions led to unemployment and reduced wages. Some businesses thrived and others fell to the wayside. Unemployed people had to work in government camps to survive. TheWinnipeg General Strike of 1919 brought police violence and deaths. Conditions inspired the public to introduce unemployment insurance by 1940. Windsor’s Ford Strike in 1945 instigated binding arbitration.

In 1956 the Canadian Labour Congress was created. The time had come for a country-wide labour organization to help unions to work together around common goals. From the 60s to the 80s conditions fluctuated. See Craig Sitter’s article below about Massey Ferguson’s strike and fate.

The Free Trade Agreement in 1989 meant that protective tariffs no longer existed, and industries suffered tremendously. They had to compete with other countries where wages and costs were
less. When markets shrank, the companies faced money problems. Employment went
into a tailspin, factories closed or moved elsewhere. Workers’ protests and strikes

dominated the scene. The recession of 1992-3 began to take hold in Brantford’s economy, and by 1994 unemployment increased to 14%. Politicians looked desperately for help. They applied for funding for a building to centralize services for workers.

With Federal and municipal help, the Brantford District Labour Centre was completed by 1995. It houses the Brantford District Labour Council, a non-profit organization which gives workers a one-stop centralized access to services -- agencies such as employment, legal services, the Food Bank, union offices and various other tenants, with a double classroom, boardroom and breakaway room for the use of tenants and community partners.CIHC is working with BDLC to gather the stories of workers and their families .