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Canada Is an Important Part of the History of Labor Day

Canada Is an Important Part of the History of Labor Day

Now considered a long weekend during which most Americans celebrate the last gasp of summer, the Labor Day holiday in the United States arose out of anything but beaches, picnics, parades, and barbecues. Did you know that Canada is an important part of the history of Labor Day?

History of Labor day 101

Let’s turn the clocks back about 150 years to take a peek into the history of Labor Day.  By the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought steady employment to many Americans — but also pay cuts and deteriorating working conditions.  In exchange for steady employment, Americans compromised their rights in the workplace, and labor unions began to form.

The United States’ northern neighbor weighed in on this troubling trend.  Unions were illegal in Canada until 1872, when thousand of Ottawa laborers marched on the Prime Minister’s home.  Canada soon wiped the anti-union law from its books, and the annual march became a tradition for Canadian workers.

At the time, an American labor union leader, Peter J. McGuire, was invited to one of these labor march celebrations and was so impressed that he suggested a similar march to the New York City’s Central Labor Union, suggesting September 5 to fill the long void between July 4 and Thanksgiving.  (So here is how the idea of a long late summer weekend figured in to the history of Labor Day.)

On Tuesday, September 5, 1882, thousands of laborers marched from New York City’s City Hall to Union Square to rally for an 8-hour workday.  Two years later, it was moved the parade to the first Monday in September, and other cities were encouraged to organize similar marches.  The choice:  spend the day at work, or march without pay.

Oregon became the first state to legalize the holiday, in 1887.  Other states soon followed, but it took tragedy and political disaster to make it a national holiday.

In 1894, railway workers in Pullman, Illinois went on strike to protest wage cuts.  President Grover Cleveland faced pressure and sent in 12,000 federal troops to break up the demonstrations, ending in the deaths of 2 strikers.   In an attempt to appease workers, Cleveland signed the Labor Day holiday into law (though he lost the election that year).

By the 1950s, American workers continued to gain power, with over one-third of the labor force unionized.  Labor Day became a time to gather forces to reflect on — or petition for — safer conditions, benefits, and better pay.

Of course, as much of the United States’ hard labor has been outsourced or moved overseas, the meaning of Labor Day has diminished, the history of Labor Day is becoming hazy, and most Americans consider the holiday as nothing more than a reason to plan leisurely gatherings and parties.

By extension, we are all laborers — whether behind a machine or laptop — and should be thankful (most of us) have the day off.

Make the effort to organize your Labor Day celebration, large or small.  Be sure to let your friends know about the origins, true meaning, and history of Labor Day, for an informal history lesson.   Tell your friends to not answer work emails during your Labor Day festivities.  Perhaps collect everyone’s smartphone or device at the beginning of the event — and then return them at the end.  (The person with the most unread emails wins!).

And don’t forget to thank Canada for being a part of the history of Labor Day.

Use PurpleSlate app to create invitations for any event on the go. It is coming really soon. Be the first to get notified by signing up here. While it is not ready for this Labor day, we hope that by the next one you would have already used the app to to create many memorable events.



Posted by Jake Wengroff on August 26, 2015.

Jake WengroffI have served as the Founding Chairman of the Social Media Strategies Summit, and have written for publications such as and InformationWeek. I have been quoted in Time, Reuters, Bloomberg, and other publications on the topics of social media and marketing. If you enjoyed reading this post, join our email list to get free email updates.

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