Both the U.S.A. and Canada celebrate their countries’ workers on the first Monday in September, they just don’t agree on the spelling! Featuring picnics, barbecues but also political speeches, both public holidays grew out of union movements in the late nineteenth century demanding shorter working days and more rights for workers.
It's no coincidence that the holidays in both countries were created at the same time. The first Monday in September became a federal holiday in the U.S. and a statutory one in Canada the same year, 1894. This double victory was the fruit of years of joint activism between workers’ organisations on both sides of the border.
The Canadians held the first event, on 15 April, 1872, in Toronto. Trades unions were illegal in Canada, based on an old British law which had been repealed in the U.K. but not its colony. Nevertheless, workers did form organisations, based on their trades. And there was a growing movement to amalgamate these brotherhoods and fraternities to gain strength in numbers. Toronto was in the vanguard, and by 1872, the Toronto Workers Assembly united 27 separate unions.
One of the Assembly’s main demands was to reduce the working day from 12 hours to nine. The Toronto Typographical Union had gone on strike for the nine-hour day and 24 of its leaders had been imprisoned. The Assembly decided to hold a demonstration for their release. More than 10,000 people joined the parade – a tenth of the city’s population – and the idea spread to other cities. Soon the anti-union law was repealed.
Strike for a Holiday
In the U.S., the first Labor Day took place on 5 September, 1882 in New York City, organised by the Central Labor Union. The day started with a parade, followed by a picnic with workers’ families. But the workers who participated had to strike for the day to take part.
Two worker activists with similar names are both credited for coming up with the idea in the States: Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union. Whichever was responsible, the idea spread to other cities and states.
Just after that first event in 1882, both American and Canadian unions took part in a workers' convention in New York. From then on, they fought for the same rights, including a shorter working day and week (from six days to five), safer working conditions, and end to child labour and an annual Labor Day holiday.
It took until 1938 for most of those demands to be met in the U.S.A. Over the years, the holiday has lost a lot of its militant feel in both countries, and these days for many people is simply a day off which marks the end of summer vacation for schools.
For more on Labor Day, this animation from Ted-Ed is clear and slowly narrated. Click on the links below for another video and an A1+-level resource for classroom use.
Library of Congress