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.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
Without trade unions promoting the aim of a 40-hour work week, there would have been no pressure on employers to limit the amount of time employees spend working. While of course employees are free to choose how long they spend working, trade unions worked to ensure this was the choice of a worker, not their boss. The movement for an 8-hour work day peaked at the turn of the 20th century, just before the First World War. And more recent moves towards re-imagining the working day have seen big businesses use technology to limit after-hours email traffic. Arguably such ideas are borne out of trade union campaigning more than a century ago.
While European rules introduced the basic legal right to paid-for annual leave, it is the trade unions which fought for enhanced entitlements over and above the basic EU provision. Since the early 2000s, the Trades Union Congress has fought for increases to the amount of leave, which is now the equivalent of 5.6 working weeks (PDF).
Before the Employers and Workmen Act 1875, workers were the only ones who could be sued for breach of an employment contract. The increased organisation of trade unions and the Great Reform Act prompted both Tory and Liberal governments of the time to take a renewed interest in employment laws. Ultimately this brought about greater parity in the relationship between employer and employee.
Trade unions were instrumental in lobbying government for the provision of leave for new parents - at workers' own discretion. In 1998, the Trades Union Congress launched a campaign to ensure that proposed parental leave would be flexible and well promoted to employees.
Cases of discrimination aren't uncommon, but they'd be a lot more if it weren't for trade unions. As the European Commission says: "Trade unions play a primary role in fighting against discrimination through a variety of actions and tools". They negotiate with employers, support victims, and monitor discrimination cases - keeping up-to-date with the latest case law so that we don't have to.
Although trade unions had reservations about the effect of a national minimum wage, they declared their support for the policy in the mid-1980s. By the 1990s, scholarly evidence caught up with the unions - arguing that a minimum wage would not reduce adult-age employment (PDF). And through the Labour Party, trade unions were able to influence policy in government after the 1997 election.
In the 1840s, unions that were highly centralised and which employed full-time officers brought about negotiation and arbitration as their preferred method of achieving a good deal for their members. This had a significant effect in improving worker/industrialist relations, and while not always successful, they fundamentally changed workplace relationships for the better.
In the 1830s, a Chartist movement was organised around 6 clear principles - and mobilised mass support for its aims through petitions. Just like trade unions, the Chartists' relied on collective aims amongst like-minded people - most visible in the form of three 'monster' petitions presented to Parliament. These contained millions of signatures and proved a desire amongst workers for improved working conditions.
The history of the working week lies in industrial practices, and in Britain factories operated 6 days a week to maintain efficiencies of scale. Sundays were always the day of rest. But trade unions fought to secure the Saturday for workers, too. And now the Monday-to-Friday work week is accepted across industries, as the LSE notes.
Follow John Cartwright on Twitter: www.twitter.com/torontolabour