Day 28. Celebrating Workers

Labour Day.  For some it means nothing more than a long weekend, a Monday off from work.  For others, it signals the end of summer, an official return to the daily   grind.  For kids, it’s back to school (groan).  For Canadians, it’s also the last long weekend before Thanksgiving, which begins the countdown to Christmas.

How we’ll spend the day, is different for everyone.  Those who spent the weekend away from home are probably heading back.  They could be packing up their cars, preparing for their long drives home as I write this.  Or in long lines, waiting to go through airport security, or board trains and busses.  Others are packing up cottages.  Lots of us will hang out in our backyards, sharing a beer or two with friends and family.

We’ll play tennis and golf.  Swim, sail and water ski.  We’ll read.  Listen to music.  Go to amusement parks and flea markets and county fairs. Nap.  And we’ll take advantage of all the special Labour Day sales at many stores.

But for many members of the work force —  those who protect, serve and care for us — like doctors and nurses, police and fire fighters, emergency workers, taxi and transit drivers, retailers, restaurateurs and more, it’s not a holiday at all.  For them it’s just another day at the office.

Being as curious as I am, I decided to spend an hour or two of my Labour Day, researching the history of the holiday.  What I’ve found is kind of interesting.  To begin with, Labour Day is celebrated in many countries around the world:  Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cuba, India, Jamaica, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Sweden, Middle East, Trinidad and Tobago — and, of course, Canada and the United States.  But it isn’t celebrated on the same day, everywhere.

From Wikipedia I found that in Australia, for example, it’s the first Monday in October in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and South Australia.  In Victoria and Tasmania it’s the second Monday in March.  In Western Australia, it’s the first Monday in March.  And it’s the first Monday in May in both Queensland and the Northern Territory.

It’s celebrated on May 1 in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cuba, India, Malaysia, Norway, Philippines, Sweden and the Middle East.  Prior to 1961 Jamaicans celebrated Labour Day on May 24.  Since then it’s been May 23.  In New Zealand it’s the fourth Monday in October; while in Trinidad and Tobago the day is June 19.  So it is only in Canada and The U.S. that we celebrate Labour Day on the first Monday in September.

In Canada, its origins can be traced back to April 15, 1872 when the Toronto Trades Assembly organized our first significant demonstration for workers’ rights.  The aim of the demonstration was to release the 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union, who were imprisoned for striking to campaign for a 9-hour work day.  We originally celebrated Labour Day in the Spring, but it was moved to the Fall after 1894.

As for the U.S., some say that a machinist named Matthew Maguire first proposed the holiday in 1882, while serving as Secretary of the CLU (Central Labor Union) of New York.  Others argue that it was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor in May 1882, after witnessing the annual labor festival held in Toronto, in Canada.  Oregon was the first state to make it a holiday in 1887; and by the time it became a federal holiday in 1894, it was officially celebrated in 30 states.

Wherever you live, though, and regardless of the day on which you celebrate, we are all celebrating the achievement of workers.  Ironic when so many people are unemployed, the world over.

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