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Take Back Labour Day!

August 29, 2010

Some people think Labour Day was set up as a capitalistic counter-measure to May 1, but this was not the case with the original Labour Day holiday. It grew out of working class struggle. And the head of the Carpenters Union Peter McGuire, who introduced this Canadian day to US workers was, at that time, an anarchist, a friend of Joe Labadie, not some right-wing AFL pork chopper. The following is the text of a leaflet to be handed out on Labour Day by Van Isle IWW:

Labour Day was not given to us. It grew out of Labour’s own action in the 1870’s. Read on…

The Canadian labour movement can justly claim the title of originator of Labour Day. Peter J. McGuire, one of the founders of the American Federation of Labour has traditionally been known as the ‘Father of Labour Day’. Historical evidence indicates that McGuire obtained his idea for the establishment of an annual demonstration and public holiday from the Canadian trade unionist.

Earliest records show that the Toronto Trades Assembly, perhaps the original central labour body in Canada, organized the first North American ‘workingman’s demonstration’ of any significance for April 15,1872. The beribboned parade marched smartly in martial tread accompanied by four bands. About 10,000 Torontonians turned out to see the parade and listen to the speeches calling for abolition of the law which decreed that trade unions were criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.

The freedom of 24 imprisoned leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union, on strike to secure the nine-hour working day, was the immediate purpose of the parade, on what was then Thanksgiving Day It was still a crime to be a member of a union in Canada although the law of criminal conspiracy in restraint of trade had been repealed by the United Kingdom parliament in 1871.

Toronto was not the only city to witness a labour parade in 1872. On September 3, members of seven unions in Ottawa organized a parade more than a mile long, headed by the Garrison Artillery band and flanked by city fireman carrying torches.

The Ottawa parade wound its way to the home of Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald where the marchers hoisted him into a carriage and drew him to Ottawa City Hall by torchlight. ‘The Old Chieftain’, aware of the discontent of workers with the laws which made unions illegal, in a ringing declaration from the steps of the City Hall, promised the marchers that his party would ‘sweep away all such barbarous laws from the statute books’.

The offending conspiracy laws were repealed by the Canadian government in 1872. The tradition established by the Toronto Trades Assembly was continued through the seventies and into the early 1880’s.

In 1882, the Toronto Trades and Labour Council, successor to the TTA, decided to organize the annual demonstration and picnic for July 22. The council sent an invitation to Peter J. McGuire of New York requesting his services of as a speaker for the occasion. McGuire was the founder and general secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters which had organized the previous year.

It was in the same year, that McGuire proposed at a meeting of the New York Central Labour Union that a festive day be set aside for a demonstration and picnic. Labour Day was first celebrated in New York on September 5,1882. It is apparent, however, that the custom had developed in Canada and the invitation sent to McGuire prompted his suggestion to the New York labour body.

Soon pressure for legislation to declare a national holiday for Labour Day was exerted in both Canada and the United States. In 1894 the government of Sir John Thompson enacted such legislation on July 23, with the Prime Minister piloting the bill through Parliament against the opposition of some of his Conservative followers.

Canadian trade unionists have celebrated this day set aside to honor those who labour’ from the 1870’s on. The first Labour Day parade in Winnipeg, in 1894, was two miles long.

There can be little doubt that the annual demonstrations of worker’s solidarity each Labour Day in North America owe their inspiration to small group of ‘illegal’ members of the Toronto Trades Assembly.

The above is an edited version of an article written in September, 1961 byClifford A Scotton, editor of the former CLC flagship publication, “Canadian Labour

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2010 1:20 am

    I love your basic argument that Labor Day is not a capitalist imposition on the working class, I’ve been making much the same points for years. You’ve laid out the history nicely except for one detail. Unless you have materials I’ve never seen I would not call Peter J. McGuire an anarchist. He was, in my opinion, a decent and principled man, but his principals were those of a mild socialist, not an anarchist, despite his friendship with Labadie.

  2. September 20, 2010 5:09 pm

    Thanks for your comment! Perhaps not as full blown an anarchist as Labadie but certainly a close comrade. I found this in “All American Anarchist, Joseph A. Labadie and the Labor Movement” by Carlotta Anderson. (Labadie’s grand daughter) p 284 note 25, Labadie in 1883 said that McGuire “leaned considerably toward anarchism.” Similar statements about him on pages 131 and 167. Anarchists had an important role in the early AFL. As well as Labadie, McGuire, Dyer Lum (Gompers secretary) August McCraith (Secty of AFL) Henry Weissman and Frank K. Foster were also anarchists at this time. (p.167) The AFL anarchists helped Gompers defeat motions to get the AFL to adopt a socialist platform. They did with the idea of keeping the union “free of politics” and thus headed the organization in the direction of business unionism. Talk about the “law of unintended consequences”!

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