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The Toronto Roots Of Labour Day

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This Labour Day over twenty-five thousand union members will march on the streets of Toronto with the Labour Council to celebrate the achievements of the labour movement. It is the largest parade on Labour Day in North America -- a testament to the determination of workers to mark our place in Canada's largest urban centre. But it is also fitting because the roots of Labour Day are actually in Toronto.

One hundred and forty five years ago a small group of workmen came together to give life to an idea -- the creation of a collective voice for working people in Toronto. On April 12th, 1871 the Toronto Trades and Labour Assembly (now the Labour Council) was founded by representatives of the emerging economy -- barrel-makers, shoemakers, printers, bakers, cigar-makers and metalworkers. They were soon joined by other occupations. It was a time of rising for workers across the world, from the nine-hour day movement to the Paris Commune.

The new Assembly decided to hold a "working man's demonstration." Two thousand workers representing 13 unions participated -- the predecessor of today's Labour Day parade. Within a year the fledging labour movement in Toronto would be tested. Printers at the Globe newspaper went on strike and were jailed for criminal sedition. Ten thousand people took to the streets demanding their freedom and labour rights. The call for justice echoed throughout the country and Sir John A. MacDonald's government passed the first Trade Union act.

The tradition of large parades continued, and Peter McGuire of the Carpenters Union took the idea back to New York with a proposal to mark the first Monday of September as a union celebration. The idea took hold and spread, and by 1894 the Canadian government declared Labour Day a public holiday. A century later the day is a welcome holiday that ends the summer and starts the school year.

But the faces marching on Labour Day reflect something much deeper. Since the first nations gave us the name Toronto -- a "gathering place" -- this region has been built by waves of immigrants and refugees. Each new group discovered that in order to have a fair share of Canada's prosperity they needed collective representation. In the workplace that meant building a union, and from the very beginning our unions adopted the principle that "What we wish for ourselves, we wish for all."

We are fighting for an economy that is both sustainable and offers good jobs for all.

In the early decades the Labour Council mounted campaigns for employment standards, sanitary conditions, limitation of working hours; and prohibiting child labour. It also called for equal pay for women, one of the first advocates for equality in Canada. There was a sweeping program for municipal ownership of the street railway system, telephone services, power, gas and the fire brigade. It lobbied for better public health and a quality education system, as well as a Fair Wage policy.

The creation of the Toronto Hydro Electric System was championed by William Hubbard, the first African-Canadian City Councillor. Labour led a plebiscite to create the publicly owned Toronto Transit Commission. These crucial achievements reflected the determination of labour to engage in "political bargaining" to win social gains.

After the Great Depression the Second World War spurred the economy and created a new upsurge of organizing. Tens of thousands joined unions in Toronto and struggled for collective agreements. The lessons of fight against fascism were deeply felt, and in 1947 the Toronto Joint Labour Committee for Human Rights was formed. It led a relentless campaign against racist practices by employers, landlords and businesses. The Labour Council was also a founding partner of the United Way, and unions widely supported charitable work.

The 21st century has posed many challenges to the labour movement. Governments have embraced austerity, employers are imposing two-tier wages, and tough strikes or lock-outs are more frequent. Precarious work seems to be the norm for the next generation. But unions in Toronto and York Region are responding. Labour has been deeply involved in the struggles for decent work, for racial equality, for public services and for an education system that gives every student what they need to succeed. We are fighting for an economy that is both sustainable and offers good jobs for all.

Working people in Toronto have been on a remarkable journey since 1871. On Labour Day, we honour those who laid the foundations for a movement that has been so much part of Toronto's history.

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