THERE ARE TWO LABOUR DAYS: OURS AND THEIRS. There is the one we chose for ourselves and the one the bosses created to try and buy us off.
May Day (May 1) is the one we chose for ourselves in the late 1800’s. Workers all around the world chose that day to mark the Haymarket Square massacre of workers in Chicago in May 1886. May Day became, and still is, a national public holiday in many countries worldwide. It remains the real Labour Day.
The “Labour Day” holiday we take in early September in Canada and the USA was a creation of the bosses. They were desperate to do something to stop the rise of organized labour—so long as it didn’t cost them anything. Giving us a holiday in September—one day off work in a month without any connection to the solidarity, struggles and victories of working people—was their perfect answer.
It didn’t work. Workers continued to join together in unions. Organized labour in North America grew and grew to become the greatest continuing force for good we have ever known.
Labour Day the Canadian way
Our federal government created the Labour Day holiday in 1894—but not because organized labour had pushed for it. Battles over union recognition, wages and working conditions were far more important. These battles troubled the government a lot.
By 1886, events like the Haymarket Massacre had made the “labour question” the most important issue of the day. Labour was “on the rise” all across North America. Worker militancy was continuous and strong. Public support was growing.
Governments everywhere felt compelled to deal with this reality. In Canada Prime Minister John A. Macdonald found a typically Canadian way to do it. He created a Royal Commission.
The Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital produced five volumes of testimony and analysis and dozens of recommendations.
The testimony is hair-raising and casts a long, dark shadow over the first capitalists who staked their claim to Canada, including some of the most well known names in Canadian business history, like Eaton’s and Simpsons.
The one and only result
The recommendations ranged from separate factory washrooms for men and women to arbitration boards to shorter hours to better regulation of railways and the oil industry. As well as the suggestion "that one day in the year, to be known as Labour Day, be set apart as a holiday by the Government." This was the one and only recommendation ever acted upon.
Labour Day was finally proclaimed a national holiday in 1894—five years and two prime ministers after the royal commission. But it is not clear that the government had even ever consulted the report of the royal commission. What is clear is that the government was responding to a wave of worker militancy, strikes and radicalism.
It is also clear from this is that changes in the laws affecting workers, including holidays, come as a response to labour’s militancy, not as a reward for workers staying quiet. Workers influence the political agenda when they are active in the streets, the workplace and the ballot box, when they develop new tactics and forms of organization, and when they pose alternatives to “business as usual.”
But too often these dissident movements are purged from the self-declared mainstream of the labour movement. Without that creative rebel energy the labour movement fades into irrelevance and Labour Day becomes just one more long-weekend holiday without any special significance for everyday working Canadians. More's the pity.