Labour Day 2912 Cartoon by Greg Perry.

Cartoon by Greg Perry.

To-day is Labour Day in Canada… our last day of summer, the last day before schools reopen, and the day the Hamilton TigerCats play the Toronto Argonauts. Both traditionally and historically, it is also the day we celebrate and stand strong with the laborers and labor unions that made our country strong.

Wikipedia reminds us:

Labour Day has been celebrated on the first Monday in September in Canada since the 1880s. The origins of Labour Day in Canada can be traced back to December 1872 when a parade was staged in support of the Toronto Typographical Union’s strike for a 58-hour work-week….  George Brown, Canadian politician and editor of the Toronto Globe hit back at his striking employees, pressing police to charge the Typographical Union with “conspiracy.” Although the laws criminalising union activity were outdated and had already been abolished in Great Britain, they were still on the books in Canada and police arrested 24 leaders of the Typographical Union. Labour leaders decided to call another similar demonstration on September 3 to protest the arrests. Seven unions marched in Ottawa, prompting a promise by Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to repeal the “barbarous” anti-union laws.] Parliament passed the Trade Union Act on June 14 the following year, and soon all unions were seeking a 54-hour work-week.

Arguments about unions came up frequently in my childhood home. My grandfather, who lived with us, was a skilled cabinet-maker in the days when kitchen cabinets were not prefabricated in factories, but lovingly crafted on site, like fine furniture. He had apprenticed with his father and had several apprentices and journeymen working with him. For Baba, unions meant the end of the independent craftsman. He could not tolerate the idea of factory work, being on a production line, doing one thing all day, every day. My father’s background was in the automotive industry. As a small businessman and entrepreneur, he had no personal connection with unions, but he could certainly see how unionized labour in big factory operations were necessary to auto manufacturing.
Dad also loved to argue with Baba. Beer always assisted the clarity of thought and vehemence of expression, and the argument was never resolved. But I know that both of them would be deeply saddened by the ignorance and disrespect today, and by the loss of solid respectable and reliable factory work in our communities, union or no union.

To make matters more complicated, Hamilton used to be a “steel town”. The big players were Stelco (unionized) and Dofasco (not unionized). It was said that it was better to work at Dofasco, but you had to have “connections” to get in… a father or uncle already working there. Stelco strikes were bitter and frequent. Dofasco never had a strike. Why? Whatever the Stelco workers wrestled from management, Dofasco workers would be given automatically. Why pay union dues and risk lost wages or meager strike pay if some one else would do the work for you?

As  secondary teachers in Ontario, my husband and I were automatically enrolled in one of the largest and richest unions in the country, the OSSTF. As a young family with a mortgage to pay, we resented the huge chunk of money deducted at source for membership, insurance, and pension contributions. We were paid monthly, September to June. We had to budget and save to get through from the June cheque until the end of September! And sometimes the teachers had to “work to rule” or even strike.  We also marched behind OSSTF banners in the Labour Day Parade. Now we are so grateful.

As I write this, the highways are crowded with families who have had one last swim and closed the cottage to head back home and start another new year. I wonder how many kids in the back seat, playing games on their IPods, know how this holiday got its name. Do their parents know? Does anyone care? Perhaps they should read this book together:

Bread and Roses, Too is a 2006 children’s book written by U.S. novelist Katherine Paterson. Set in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912 in the aftermath of the Lawrence textile strike (also known as the Bread and Roses Strike), the book focuses on the Italian-born daughter of mill workers who finds herself becoming the protector of a boy who is afraid to return home to his abusive father. (Wikipedia)

And read The Road to Terebithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, and all her other books… even if you don’t have children to share them with. Her books have   poignancy and wisdom worth experiencing whatever your age.

We used to look for the union tag in the clothing we bought. Or a label that said “Made in Canada”. Try to find something in your kid’s closet that was made in Canada… try to buy a pair of shoes, a T-shirt, jeans, school supplies. Even the USA Olympic team uniforms, designed by no other than Ralph Lauren, were made in China!

I can’t sign off without reminding everyone that Spirit of the West, a great celtic/rock /folk band from Vancouver, produced an album called Labour Day. Here is the best-known song from it. My favourite is The Profiteers, but I could not find it on YouTube.


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  1. Pingback: Labour Day 2013 | Invest Me in My Motley

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