This is a copy of a piece I wrote the Advocate, the official newsletter of Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA) for September 2016 in preparations for their contract negotiations with Laurier University.

Across this country, we celebrate Labour Day.  We celebrate the achievements won by labour movements of the past and present – our 5-day work week, 8-hour work day, the minimum wage, and not sending our children down into mine shafts. While every Labour Day is an important reminder of these hard-won victories, this year’s Labour Day holds particular significance for Contract Faculty at Laurier.  As we pivot from the hazy dog days of summer to the bustle of a new school year, we also are entering into the serious business of contract negotiations.

Although, by time this piece will have gone to print Labour Day will have come and gone, it is important to remind ourselves of some of the efforts and sacrifices made by the workers who came before us.  And while we are tempted to labour’s past victories for granted, it is those same victories that are under attack.  The growth of contract work throughout the job market, the increasing use of flex hours, and the arrival of the sharing economy have undermined many of the protections workers have enjoyed. And perhaps more concerning is the fact hat the rate of unionized employees has continually fallen.  In 1981, the rate was 37.6%, but in 2014 the rate had dropped 9% to just 28.8% (  Although there does seem to be some good news on that front.  According to a Toronto Star editorial, union participation has increased to 31.8%; an improvement to be sure, but still a far cry from participation rates not that long ago.

There is no question that this Labour Day will be parades, BBQs, and other festivities, however the sad reality is that most Canadians know very little about the history of Labour Day or of the efforts that have improved the quality of life for us.  This is the result of labour education which is almost non-existent.  The history of labour did not figure largely in my Canadian history courses in both high school and university, except for a brief overview of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, often without the context of where it fit within the larger development of the Canadian Labour movement.

For example, the 8-hour workday only came about after decades of intense struggle and too many instances of real human tragedy.

But at least the locks worked.

To cite such an instance from the United States, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 saw the death of 146 garment workers in a fire that broke out in the factory because the employers had locked the doors from the outside to prevent their employees from taking unauthorized breaks (yes, regularly scheduled breaks during a shift is another victory won by unions).  In Canada, the drive to standardize working hours was imported from England in the 1870s.  Known as the Nine-Hour Movement, it was supported by workers in Ontario and Quebec.  After a few years of lobbying, it was the Toronto’s Typographical Union that translated their demands into action when they struck on March 25, 1872 after their demands were not met.  The primary target was the Globe, the newspaper founded by George Brown.  Prior to the strike his attitude towards the workers’ demands revealed where his sympathies lay in an editorial he wrote: “it is utterly ridiculous to talk of the rapacity and despotism of the employees. The tyranny of the employed over his master would be an infinitely truer version of the case.”[1]

Despite the fact that this was the largest mass movement in Canadian history up to that point, the Typographical Union did not win the right to a nine-hour work day, but their efforts did not go unrewarded.  As a result of the strike, the government of John A. MacDonald whose government had courted the support of pro-workers’ leaders now faced the Liberals, led by George Brown who threatened “to destroy the workers’ movement,”[2] introduced and passed the Trade Union Act which legalized unions, although this was followed up with the Criminal Amendment Act, criminalizing demonstrations and picket lines.

While legal limits on the length of the work day and the legalization of the strike would come later, the strike of 1872 was an important step in establishing workers’ rights in Canada and was the starting point for many of the advances won by the labour movement, including acting as the precursor of Labour Day and the origins of the Canadian Labour Union.

George Brown

Some of these advancements came more than a decade later when the Federal Government established the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital in 1889.  In the Report’s preamble, the Commissioners noted that “labour organizations are necessary to enable working men to deal on equal terms with their employers. They encourage their members to study and discuss matters affecting their interests and to devise means for the betterment of their class.”[3]  This statement was premised on the idea that “the man who sells labour should, in selling it, be on an equality with the man who buys it” and more importantly “each party to a labour contract should be subject to some penalty for violation of it.”[4]  Further government recognition came twenty years after the Typographer’s strike when in 1894 the first Monday in September was officially adopted as Labour Day.

By 1900, the government of Wilfrid Laurier in response to the acknowledged need of improving working conditions in Canada created the Federal Department of Labour, which was created by the Conciliation Act of 1900.  The primary function of the Department of Labour was to handle trade disputes which had originally been dealt with by the Postmaster General.  The newly found Department was headed by William Lyon MacKenzie King prior to becoming the first Minister of Labour in 1909 (

We have a rich labour history in Canada which is still being written.  It is difficult to know what the labour landscape will look like in the coming years.  Perhaps, a little optimism should be in order.  For ten years, the Conservative government worked expressed an undisguised hostility to the concerns of labour, but with the election of the Liberals there seems to be some real efforts being made to strengthen the labour movement and improve the conditions of Canadian workers.  To be sure, these are still early days and campaign promises have a habit of going unfulfilled.  And while sunny days may be ahead – those days will not happen without an active and vibrant labour movement that can only come about when we understand and passed down the history of Canadian labour to future generations so that they will continue the struggle when we have finished our fight.

[1] Globe, 23, March 1872.

[2] Globe, 23, March 1872.

[3] Report of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital in Canada, 9. 1889.


[4] Report of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital in Canada, 9. 1889.


Jason Sager is a professor of history whose interests are wide ranging although his research focus is early-modern French intellectual history.  He loves a good eclair and sells historical and literary themed mugs through Old Berlin Designs ( and and can be reached on at and on twitter: @drjasonsager