Hey there fellow Canadians – it’s the Labour Day weekend! I hope you get to use the holiday to relax and enjoy what’s left of the summer – although that may not be what the original founders of Labour Day intended…
Why do we even have a Labour Day? And why have some of you seen this photo popping up in your news feed?
Some basic facts
- Labour Day was declared a national holiday in 1894, at a time when all levels of government were under pressure from Canada’s working-class population.
- In Canada, Labour Day was instituted after thousands of workers across Canada’s cities had already participated in several years of strikes and working-class festivals. These festivals, which included large parades, were opportunities to campaign for a 54-hour work week.
- Today, Labour Day and similar holidays are celebrated around the world, including in the U.S., Australia, and Jamaica.
Life at WOrk
What was it like to be a working-class citizen during the days of the Labour Movement?
The 1800s saw dramatic changes to the nature of labour. The skills of craftspeople were increasingly replaced by machines. Working conditions deteriorated, creating a perfect storm of overcrowding, neglect for health and safety, paltry wages, and unfair treatment. As the years went by, strikes and protests became more and more frequent, even though it was illegal for workers to speak out or join a union.
- If you were a domestic or a machinist in Hamilton, Ontario between 1890 and 1914, you could expect to earn about $150 per year.
- In the 1830s and 40s, workers in the textile mills at Lowell, Massachusetts (one of America’s earliest factories) worked from 4:00am to 7:30pm. They lived in congested and unsanitary company-owned boarding houses. Over 85% of them were women.
- What you could do and how much you were paid was dependent upon your gender, ethnicity, skill level, and age. Children did work in Canadian factories, some of them brought overseas to Canada by the British Children’s Aid Societies.
And Free Time?
- Long hours at work meant that people didn’t always have time for leisure. Those who did kept themselves busy with a variety of activities: spending time with friends, seeing the occasional roadside show or circus, playing sports, and more. More nefarious pastimes included dance halls and roller rinks (gasp!), taverns, gambling, or even gangs, such as the Black Horse gang in Montreal, Quebec.
- Spiritual life was also important in many working-class communities. Churches, for example, varied in their stances towards labour strikes and gender equality (most leaning to the conservative side), but they offered a place where working-class citizens could socialize, learn, join sports teams, organize events, and provide mutual aid. Working-class churches are the origin of some organizations that are familiar to us today, such as the YMCA and the Salvation Army.
Today, most workers in Canada enjoy the benefits of a 35-40 hour work week, paid vacation, sick leave, and other conditions that, in the past, had to be fought for. However, problems still exist, and in some fields of work and parts of the world, workers are still campaigning for basic rights. Check out this map that shows the worst places in the world to be a worker.
Enjoy the holiday!
Some further reading:
- Canadian Encyclopedia: Working-Class History
- Canada: A People’s History – Voice of the Workers
- Working Histories
Other consulted sources:
- Melissa Turkstra, “Working Class Churches in Early Twentieth-Century Hamilton: Fostering a Distinctive Working-Class Identity and Culture,” Social History/Histoire Sociale 41, no.2 (2008): 459-503.
- Thomas Dublin, “Women, Work, and Protest in the Early Lowell Mills: ‘The Oppressing Hand of Avarice Would Enslave Us,’” Labor History 16, no.1 (1975).
- Edward Smith, “Working-Class Anglicans: Religion and Identity in Victorian and Edwardian Hamilton, Ontario,”
Social History/Histoire Sociale 36, no.71 (2003): 123-144.