On Labour Day each year, thousands of union members celebrate in cities and towns across the country, honouring the historic struggle of working people to build a better future. Few people know that the roots of Labour Day go back to Toronto during the fight for the nine-hour work day in 1872. Printers at the Globe newspaper went on strike for that goal and were jailed for criminal sedition. Ten thousand people took to the streets demanding their freedom and basic labour rights. The call for justice echoed throughout the country and the first Trade Union Act was won.
The tradition of large parades became an annual event on the first Monday of September, and by 1894 the Canadian government declared Labour Day a public holiday. Labour Day is fundamentally about solidarity. Each new generation has discovered that in order to have a fair share of the prosperity they create, they need collective representation. From the very beginning, Canada’s unions adopted the principle that “What we wish for ourselves, we wish for all”—demanding social and economic justice as well as better wages.
Today, the cost of food and housing is skyrocketing, as is income inequality. Corporate Canada is determined to impose austerity, keeping wages in check while the Bank of Canada raises interest rates. The climate crisis is more evident than ever as fires and floods devastate communities across the country and the globe. Pierre Poilievre is trying to direct people’s frustration into a Trump-style political movement, while the federal Liberals waver between policies of the centre and right at any given moment. The need for social solidarity has never been greater.
It’s always important to remind ourselves of the things people have won through collective effort. Not just medicare, public pensions and the weekend—but also more recent victories. The demand for a just recovery during the pandemic resulted in a massive social safety net that assisted millions of ordinary Canadians faced with real financial peril. The decades-long campaign for childcare brought a national childcare program that is (slowly) rolling out across the country. The Confidence and Supply Agreement between the Liberals and the NDP resulted in dental care for poor families and the pledge of public pharmacare. And the Sustainable Jobs Act finally promises to give workers a place at the table as transition to a low-carbon economy rolls out.
In recent months, people working in many different sectors have used their right to strike to secure wage gains far higher than employers wanted to offer. In Ontario, they even defeated provincial legislation. Labour continues to be deeply involved in the struggles for decent work, for racial equality, and for an education system that gives every student what they need to succeed.
The Council of Canadians has worked with the labour movement since our inception. We have stood shoulder to shoulder to fight unjust trade deals, to assert that water is a human right, to defend public healthcare and public services, to uphold democracy and the common good. We acknowledge the need to address the impact of colonization, bigotry, and systemic racism in our economy and our society. The Council works with union allies on climate justice and the call for a just transition. And most of all, on Labour Day and every day, we honour the frontline workers who serve and support our families and our communities.
The Council of Canadians and Canada’s unions have always shared common values and a common journey. Together we work in solidarity with many others, challenging the insatiable greed of corporations and billionaires while seeking to build a better Canada for all the rest of us. Those humble people who started the tradition of Labour Day over a century and a half ago believed that a better world is possible. Let us honour their legacy and continue that struggle in the years to come.
John Cartwright was elected Chairperson of the Council of Canadians at the Annual Members Meeting held in June 2019. He is the Past President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, representing 200,000 union members who work in every sector of the economy. A carpenter by trade, he led the Central Ontario Building Trades Council for a decade before being elected to his current position.