Happy Labour Day. I hope you’re enjoying the long weekend. That, of course, is what Labour Day has become – just another day off. The same is true for most statutory holidays. How many people know anything about John Graves Simcoe, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada? Other than the fact his name is attached to the holiday that gave us last month’s long weekend?
The first Monday in September is supposed to mark the accomplishments and contributions of workers, particularly those in unions. We used to have parades of a particularly political bent. Now it’s all about spending some time at the cottage.
Or perhaps you’ve made it a tradition to take in the Jerry Lewis telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I certainly spent some time with Jerry and his kids – I loved the Martin and Lewis movies (I also like visiting France, so maybe there’s a connection).
Anyway, if you don’t give much – if any – thought to Labour Day’s origins, you’re not alone.
According to a pair of Toronto historians, Labour Day has lost much of its meaning in today’s climate. In their book The Workers’ Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada, University of Toronto historian Steve Penfold and York University historian Craig Heron show how the annual North American ritual has changed dramatically over the decades.
And the event has indeed had a long history.
When Labour Day celebrations first began in the early 1880s – becoming a national statutory holiday in Canada in 1894 – parades were central to the celebration. Cities were a lot smaller in Canada so the annual parade was a very effective way for labour to get its message out to the public, “but now cities are much larger and cars have taken over the streets so communicating through a parade has an entirely different meaning,” Penfold says.
Ironically, today’s much smaller parades are in part due to the labour movement itself, the authors found. “Organized labour was conflicted on the evolution of Labour Day,” Penfold says. “You can actually read newspaper quotes from union officials and labour organizers from the late 1960s that say while it’s good that workers can now afford cottages and suburban houses, on the other hand it’s too bad they don’t come down on the one day they can say, ‘Here I am, a worker.’”
Because workers have it so good – at least by comparison to the past – there is far less reason to take a militant stance. Also, union bashing in recent years has taken its toll on the public’s perception of unionized workplaces – think of the image of North American auto plants versus their Japanese counterparts.
The decline in the manufacturing sector has weakened what had been the strongest, most active unions. While union membership is still growing, it’s doing so at a slower pace than the job market as a whole. According to Statistics Canada, union ranks rose to more than four million in 2003 from 2.8 million in 1977. However, as in many other Western industrialized countries, growth has not kept pace with employment increases: the unionization rate – the proportion of employees belonging to a union – has fallen over the years. After rising slightly to 34.2 per cent in 1987 from 32.6 per cent in 1977, it drifted downwards to between 30 and 31 per cent over most of the past decade.
Much of the growth in union membership now comes in the service sector, industries that have been more traditionally dominated by female workers. Unionized retail workers, for instance, have been much less militant than their colleagues in the manufacturing sector.
Unions have shifted away from the positions and tactics that were traditionally employed.
Still, union organizers remind us that it was those tough fights that won today’s workers many of the benefits they take for granted. Chances are if you’ve got Monday off – and there are many of us who will be working – you’ll be paid for the holiday. That wasn’t always the case. Even though Labour Day became a statutory holiday in 1894, it wasn’t until 1966 that the Canadian government legislated that holidays be paid.
I’m pretty sure the long weekend wouldn’t have the same allure if the extra day off was coming out of our own pockets, along with the tab for whatever form of entertainment we care to enjoy.