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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    The Disputed History of Labour Day

    IWWUnlike May Day, celebrated on May 1 in most parts of the world, with its clear history originating from the Chicago Haymarket police riot against striking workers in 1886, Labour Day’s roots are less certain.

    There is some doubt and confusion as to when or who started Labour Day. Here are some points of importance to how it all started.

    April 15, 1872 Toronto Trades Assembly organized the first North American "workingman's demonstration.” Some 10,000 Torontonians turned out to watch a parade and to listen to speeches calling for abolition of the law that decreed, "trade unions were criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.”

    Later that year, on September 3, members of seven unions in
    Ottawa Canada organized a parade that stretched for more than a mile long. The parade stopped at the home of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. They brought him into a carriage and marched to the Ottawa City Hall by torchlight. The Prime Minister was aware of the discontent of workers with the laws which made unions illegal so he made this declaration that his party would "sweep away all such barbarous laws from the statute books.” These laws were repealed by Parliament later that year and the tradition of holding parades and demonstrations was continued on into the early 1880s.

    On July 22, 1882, Matthew Maguire, secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J. proposed a holiday for labourers while serving as secretary of the Central Labour Union in New York. That day was to be celebrated in early September.

    That same year, Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labour, suggested a day to honour workers. On
    September 5, 1882, the Central Labour Union held its first Labour Day holiday in New York City. A second Labour Day was again held a year later on September 5, 1883.

    The following year, the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, and the Central Labour Union urged similar organizations in other cities to also celebrate a "workingman's holiday" on that date.

    February 21, 1887, the State of Oregon passed the first bill to become law making Labour Day an official holiday.

    Seven years later, on June 29, 1894, the United States Congress passed an act making the first Monday of September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories including all federal workers in all states. By then, 31 states had done already enacted their own Labour Day—all not September 5.

    Finally, on
    July 23, 1894, the Canadian government enacted legislation making Labour Day, the first Monday of September of each year into a national holiday.

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