Labour Day or Holiday?

A History of Labour Day in Saint John, N.B.

By: George Vair

Labour Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labour Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation

—Samuel Grompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) circa 1900.

Be that as it may, Labour Day—unlike May Day(1)—has very little historic significance. It is the only holiday where there is no consensus on what the day actually stands for or how it should be celebrated. Officially, Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September, as a special holiday set aside to honour workers and the contribution they make to their jobs and to society. But is it simply just another day of leisure devoted to those who must toil for a living? Or is it a day for organized labour to hold parades, showing off their craft or promoting their causes? Is it a day for labour leaders to release messages ridiculing governments for their inactions on economic and social issues? Is it a day for organized labour to show respectability, by joining with politicians and business leaders in praise of past achievements? Is it a day for labour organizations to organize social events, such as picnics, games or labour fairs? Is it simply the last holiday of the summer, a time to close up the cottage, remove the boat from the water or to head out of town for the final camping trip, before the cold weather sets in? Or is it just another weekend of commerce, to take advantage of the back -to-school Labour Day sales at the local mall?

There is, also, no consensus on whose idea Labour Day was or in what country the idea originated. There is no debate that the first planned Labour Day Parade, organized by the New York Central Labour Unions, took place in New York City, on Tuesday, September 5th 1882. But where the idea originated from is the subject of some debate. Some have suggested that the Canadian labour movement can take credit for the birth of Labour Day. In September 1961, Clifford Scotton, then editor of the former Canadian Labour Congress publication Canadian Labour, published an article in the September issue claiming the idea for Labour Day originated in Canada. In 1882, the Toronto Trades and Labour Council decided to organize a parade as a form of demonstration and a picnic for July 22nd. The Labour Council decided to invite Peter J. McGuire, founder and general secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and an active member of the New York Central Labour Unions. According to Scotton’s article, this invitation prompted Peter McGuire to organize the Labour Day Parade that took place in New York City on September 5th—thus the idea of a parade and subsequently a holiday known as Labour Day originated in Canada.

The problem with this suggestion is that later historians claim Peter McGuire had very little to do with the New York parade. The parade call and all the invitations were sent out over the signature of Mathew Maguire, a member of the Machinist Union, and secretary of the New York Central Labour Unions. Recent research has suggested that Mathew Maguire was the driving force that proposed the parade. (2) Peter McGuire was one of the many speakers during the post parade, but the records show that he took no part in the planning or organizing of the event. Some have suggested that Peter McGuire became known as the “Father of Labour Day” as a result of Samuel Grompers rewriting history. The fact that Mathew Maguire was a socialist and the vice-presidential candidate on the National Socialist Labour Party ticket in the 1896 Presidential election obliterated any possibility of him being recognized as the founder of Labour Day. Samuel Grompers loathed socialism, while Peter McGuire was a respected member of the AFL hierarchy. The AFL gave credit to Peter J. McGuire for coming up with the idea and thereafter he was recognized as the father of the event.

The New York Central Labour Unions repeated the parade on an annual basis. The idea spread and soon cities in both the United States and Canada were setting aside a day to celebrate and organize parades with glorious floats showing off their craft. Indeed, in 1883, the Saint John Trades paraded through the City’s streets with such an impressive display of floats and banners that the St. John Globe declared, “A magnificent display by the workingmen of St. John, the bone and sinew of the country.” The Saint John parade was a festive event, but in many cities the early parades were more of a protest rally, several agitating for the eight-hour day. Participation in such parades was considered an important requirement of membership. Workers would lose a day’s pay in order to participate and some unions censored (3) or levied fines (4) against those who did not turn out.

In the United States the first to legislatively recognize Labour Day was the State of Oregon. In 1887, Oregon proclaimed it as the first Monday in September. By 1894, twenty-three states had passed similar legislation and on 28 June, of that year, the U.S. Congress passed an Act proclaiming that the first Monday of September be called Labour Day and designated it as a legal holiday. In Canada, organized labour had been agitating for the holiday since the mid 1880’s. In 1888, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada passed a resolution in favour of “the establishment by the Dominion Government of a Labour Day as a National holiday.” In 1889, a Royal Commission on the relations between capital and labour included the holiday as one of their recommendations. On July 23rd, 1894, Prime Minister, Sir John Thompson—with some mild opposition from his Conservative colleagues, the business establishment and the press (5)—enacted legislation that declared Labour Day, the first Monday in September, as a public holiday.

Like many communities in Canada, Saint John workers had paraded in the streets long before the idea of an official Labour Day. Workers had held street parades as early as 1839, when they participated in the ceremonies of the laying of the cornerstone for the Mechanics Institute. On September 14th, 1853, Carpenters & Jointers, Ship Carpenters, Blacksmiths & Founders, Bakers, Painters, Shoemakers, Printers, Tailors, Millers, Riggers & Sailmakers, Masons & Stonecutters and Cabinet Makers marched through the city’s streets with elaborate floats and banners. They were participating in the celebration of the “Turning of the First Sod” for the European and North American Railway. Folklore—or perhaps labourlore—has it that the Saint John Trades and Labour Council organized large Labour Day parades in the city right up until the 1930’s. The truth of the matter is, the Saint John Trade Unions held very few Labour Day parades. Other labour events would sometimes be organized, but many Labour Days passed with no activities planned by the local labour movement. In fact, one of the most impressive displays by the workingmen in Saint John took place a decade before Labour Day became a public holiday. On October 2nd, 1883, the Saint John Trades held what could arguably be the most magnificent display of creative floats and banner ever displayed in the city. It is more likely this parade was motivated by the fact that 1883 was the city’s centennial year, rather than the influence of the labour parade in New York City one year earlier.

In 1883, all workers toiled long hours, under backbreaking unsafe working conditions, for starvation wages. Yet, with the exception of one or two of the longshoremen’s banners, there was little evidence of any grievances when the Saint John Trades organized a parade on that cool October morning. The City was celebrating its centennial year and on this day the workers were in a festive mood, anxious to show pride in their craft and to gain greater respectability within the broader community. When the parade got under way the morning fog had disappeared and the bright crisp October morning made ideal conditions for the event. Thousands flocked to the streets to witness the spectacle and none would come away disappointed. It was Tuesday, a day when men would normally be at work, but on this Tuesday little work would be accomplished in the city. Most of the stores were closed, most industries were idle and there was little activity taking place on the Saint John waterfront. Workers were, instead, lining up on King Street East, to take their place in the “Trades Procession.”

While waiting for the parade to get underway, the City Cornet Band was blaring out “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” The City Cornet Band was just one of seven bands that would march in the procession. The city streets were decorated with bunting hanging from top storey windows and the Union Jack fluttered in the breeze throughout the City. Shortly after 10 o’clock, Chief Marshall Pullen, mounted on a beautiful coal black charger, gave the order “forward” and the huge procession began to move. Heading the parade was the Chief of Police and a detective in a carriage, followed by four policemen on foot. Teamsters, Tailors, Painters, Safe Makers, Tinsmiths, Bakers, Blockmakers, Masons, Cabinet Makers, Printers, Longshoremen, Cotton Spinners, Plumbers, Brass Finishers, Shoemakers, Millmen and Carpenters followed. On this day, in their natty dress, workers were anxious to show respectability within the larger community and to show their creative abilities with artistic floats and banners that illustrated the pride workers felt in both their craft and their union. As the parade moved along Prince William Street, Lieut.-Governor Wilmot, His Worship Mayor Holly and members of Common Council viewed the spectacle. The procession would wind through city streets for over two hours, ending at Market Square, where the Bands played “God Save the Queen.” Cheers were given for those who organized the event and all agreed it was a great success.

Therefore, when Labour Day became a public holiday in 1894 it was no surprise that the Saint John trade unions turned out the largest and most elaborate celebration in the Maritime Provinces. Many of the floats consisted of workers applying their craft. Most unions displayed unique hand-painted banners and their dress identified with their particular trade. Over two thousand men marched in the parade and it took half an hour to pass any given point. Some of the floats were so tall that they came in contact with the electric wires. The September 3rd, 1894 issue of the St. John Globe reported:

The demonstration of the trades and workingmen was a remarkably fine one, a splendid exhibit of a strong portion of the working forces of the city, of the people in whose interests laws should be made, and whose welfare should be the prime care of all concerned with popular government. Those particularly interested in the arrangements of the day are to be congratulated that the first observance of Labour Day in the city was so successful.

But just one year later the size and quality of the Saint John Labour Day parade would decrease substantially. The Masons Union had the only float in the 1895 parade and the Tailors, Carpenters and the Longshoremen were conspicuously absent. As the St. John Globe commented:

The procession as a whole cannot be compared with that of last year, either in point of numbers or in the originality of the displays. The Coxey army burlesque seemed out of place in a labour demonstration and the private advertising carts added nothing to the interest. In many cities the managers of parades now take means to prevent the appearance of these.(6)

Whether it was a result of the apparent disappointment in the 1895 parade or that other interests had taken over the holiday or simply that the organizing of the parade had become too costly (7) or onerous is not clear. In any event, despite the efforts of the Trades and Labour Council, (8) there would not be another Labour Day parade in Saint John for seven years. In 1896, the major event on Labour Day was the bicycle races and the St. John Globe reported that the Trades and Labour organizations had not made any special provisions for the day. This would continue to be the case until 1902. In their recent book, The Workers Festival—A History of Labour Day In Canada, Craig Heron and Steve Penfold suggest that making the day a public holiday opened it to competition from the broader community. This was certainly the case in Saint John. The Capitalists saw the holiday as an opportunity to be exploited in their pursuit of profits. Special rates were offered on train or ferry excursions, which the local populace found attractive. Many would get off work early on Saturday and take advantage of the opportunity to leave town to spend both Sunday and Monday in Digby, Fredericton, Moncton, St. Stephen or other popular resorts. Churches, sport groups and fraternal organizations also seized the day for their own advantage. The major Labour Day events in Saint John from 1896-1901 were bicycle and boat races, baseball games and other sports, train and boat excursions out of the city and private picnics, none of which were organized by the trade unions. On Labour Day 1897 the St. John Globe reported:

Thousands took advantage of the opportunities offered to spend the day out of town. The special excursions were all liberally attended. The Firemen and City Cornet Band took a large number to Sussex, the D.A. R. Steamer Prince Rupert was crowded for Digby, as was the Clifton for Hampton. Picnics were held by Court Frederick, I.O.F. and the Carleton Band at Watter’s Landing; the Church of Good Shepherd at Ludgate Lake and Fairville Baptist at Green Head and Johnston Lodge I.O.F. at Hodgson’s Grove. All were very enjoyable and successful. In addition there were many private picnics at the Bay Shore, Duck Cove, Red Head, the Park and at points on the river and along I.C.R. and C.P.R. For those who remained in the city there were the baseball games and dramatic performances.

On Labour Day 1901 the Globe commented: “The crowds that went to the country were large indeed. The boats were full, the trains were full and private parties went to the Bay Shore and other places, until one would imagine the whole populace had left the city.”

Perhaps this competition for the day’s activities was the main reason for the lack of events being organized by the Saint John Trades and Labour Council. However, in 1902 the Trades and Labour Council did revive the Labour Day parade. In that same year the St. John Exhibition Association had moved their fall event to include the Labour Day weekend. It is reasonable to suggest that this might have been the motivation to bring back the parade, as more citizens would be remaining in the city. The parade was planned so the march would end at the Exhibition Grounds, where speeches and sport events would take place and prizes would be awarded. The Labour Day parade was repeated in 1903 and both parades were judged to be a huge success. The processions were lengthy, with impressive floats and banners. But the spectacle would again disappear and it would be another ten years before a Labour Day parade would wind through the City’s streets.

Longshoremen parading along Brussels St. (now Prince Edward St.) during the 1903 Labour Day parade. (Heritage Resources Photo)

From 1904 to 1912 the Saint John Trades and Labour Council opted for a Labour Day picnic—weather permitting. These picnics were held at either Watter’s Landing or Belyea’s Point and would attract between 1000 to1500 people. The picnics would take on a carnival atmosphere. A wheel of fortune was set up and prizes were awarded for archery, bowling, air gun and dancing competitions. Baseball games, boat races, tug-of-war, foot racing and jumping competitions were organized and refreshments were provided.

The Trades and Labour Council would arrange for transportation to the event. In 1911, the riverboat Majestic was scheduled to leave Indian Town for Watter’s Landing at 8:30 a.m. and the Sincennes and Champlain at 1:00 p.m. City Councillors, Federal and Provincial politicians were on hand. The 1911 edition of The St. John Standard reported, “A number of city fathers attended the picnic and H.A. Powell and James Lowell, the candidates for the Federal House were on the grounds during the day, extending a glad hand to the labour men and their friends.” Occasionally, the Labour Day picnic would have a distinguished guest from out of town. For instance, in 1912, President T.V. O’Connors, of the International Longshoremen’s Association, attended the Labour Day picnic at Belyea’s Point. Mr. O’Connors was scheduled to address a mass meeting of the longshoremen that evening. The local longshoremen had joined the International Association one year earlier and were looking for an adjustment in the wage scale. The International President was expected to address the issue.

On Labour Day 1907, there was an elaborate parade in the city. This parade, however, did not involve the local trade unions. The city was hosting “The Firemen’s Tournament.” Fire Companies from the Maritime Provinces and Maine put on a display that was described as the finest parade seen in the city for many years. Among the cities that participated were: Halifax, Yarmouth, Charlottetown and Bangor.

In 1909, Moncton was the place to be on Labour Day. The labour movement in Moncton had made plans for a parade and a number of Saint John trade unionists would be participating. A 6:00 a.m. special train that left Saint John for Moncton was full to capacity. The Saint John Trades and Labour Council had no activities planned in Saint John. In 1909, Labour Day in Saint John would be celebrated with baseball games, a performance at the Opera House and aquatic sports in Renforth.

In 1913, the Trades and Labour Council again organized a parade. This was an excellent event, with elaborate floats and banners reminiscent of the 1894, 1902 and 1903 parades. One hundred forty mounted Teamsters led the parade and the longshoreman brought out their full-rigged model ship, the “Robert Reed.” The procession contained seven bands and most unions had prepared floats, drawn by decorated teams of horses. It was the first parade in where an automobile was used, as the officers of Local 36, of the Printing Pressmen’s and Assistants Union, rode in one. It was estimated that over two thousand men marched in the 1913 Labour Day Parade. (9)

The Plumbers union, Local 531, display their float along King St. South during the 1913 Labour Day parade. Note the large crowd watching the parade. (Heritage Resources photo)

The floats, the banners and the dress of the participants in these early parades were striking. One can only try to imagine the sight of these early parades. Over two thousand workers would participate, usually led off by 150-200 mounted Teamsters—identically dressed with black Kossuth hats, (10) black pants, blue shirts with white breasts and black belts—parading four abreast, with the greys in front, then the bays and the blacks bringing up the rear. They were followed by three to four hundred men on foot, all members of the Ships Labourers Union (11), all dressed the same, with a uniform consisting of black trousers, blue serge shirt, with white belt and black Derby hat. Across the front of the shirts were the letters “S.L.U.” in white, and each man wore a bouquet. At their front they carried the union’s banner, with a full-rigged ship on it. In the middle of the longshoremen’s procession would be a float. The float represented the sea, with a full-rigged ship—“Robert Reed.” This was only the beginning. As bands filled the air with music, carpenters, masons, printers, tailors and others followed, proudly representing their organizations, through dress, floats and banners. Many of the horses had silver-mounted harnesses that glittered in the sun, patent leather blinds, red neck yokes and hames, (12) which were tipped with silver and waving plumes. (13) The processions would take over two hours to pass through the city’s streets and thousands would line the parade route to witness this remarkable display of prancing horses, —with plumes waving in the breeze—elaborate floats and beautiful hand painted banners.

The history of the “Robert Reed” is note-worthy. Following the 1894 Labour Day parade, both the St. John Globe and the St. John Daily Telegraph reported on the details of the model and where it originated. According to those reports, the “Robert Reed” is a “dug out,” made from a pine log. It is a model of a full-rigged sailing ship, just over eleven feet long and approximately two and one-half feet deep. The Black Ball Line had the model built in 1853, for the “turning of the first sod” ceremony. At that time it was named the “Joseph Tarrat.” The model also appeared as the “William Jackson,” in the procession that took place during the laying of the Atlantic cable, after which the ship was laid up at the Customs House. In 1869 the model was taken out to Reed’s Castle. When the first official Labour Day was proclaimed, members of the Ship Labourers Union set out to find the model. Eventually, they found her at Lily Lake, where it had been taken when the Castle was converted into a convent. The model was found bearing the name “Charles Drury” and to be in a dilapidated condition, with nearly all the spars gone. The longshoremen took the decrepit ship to the Furness Line warehouse, where they replaced her spars and paint, gilt, oil and varnish soon changed the model to a thing of beauty. The longshoremen changed the name to “Robert Reed,” in honour of the owner of the Black Ball Line. On either quarter was placed the name in gilt letters, while on the stern was painted “Robert Reed St. John N.B.” When she was displayed in the first Labour Day parade the Union Jack fluttered in the breeze from the end to the bowsprit and the Stars and Stripes floated out from the foretop. On the mainmast was hoisted the Black Ball Line colour—a white flag with a black ball. The Red Ensign was flown from the monkey gaff, while from the spanker gaff the pilot flag “J” could be seen. The longshoreman continued to display the model ship in Labour Day parades until 1932. The “Robert Reed” has survived, and today is in the hands of the New Brunswick Museum.

Sketch of the Robert Reed in the 1894 Labour Day Parade. (St. John Daily Telegraph, September 4, 1894)

The longshoremen continued to display the Robert Reed. In this photo, they were preparing to take their place in the 1913 Labour Day Parade. (Heritage Resources photo)

The longshoremen were not the only union to produce creative floats. Many unions put a lot of effort and imagination into their creation. (14) In the 1894 parade, the Millmen’s union had four floats. One, hauled by five horses, had a small sawmill in operation. The power was derived from the wheels of the wagon, which was sufficient to drive a gang of saws through a good-sized log. The spectators along the route could witness the log being sawed into boards. The Millmen from the W.H. Murray mill displayed their second float. The float showed how the logs were hauled from the woods to the riverbank in winter. The bobsled contained six small logs and seated on top was the driver. The third float was the work of Hilyard Brother’s employees. It was a true representation of a lumber camp, in which there were a number of choppers and trappers. The final float was a crew at work in a barrel-heading department.

Sketch of the Millmen’s float that was sawing logs into boards, as the float moved along the parade route. (St. John Daily Telegraph, September 4, 1894.)

Sketch of the W.H. Murray Millmen’s float. (St. John Daily Telegraph, September 4, 1894)

The Typographical Union, Local 85, had a miniature printing office on their float. There was a stand, a pair of cases full of type and a press, on which “The Labour Day Souvenir” was being printed. On the side of the float were the words “THE ART PRESERVATIVE OF ALL ARTS.” The “Printers Devil” was there, in full uniform with red suit and horns. The Devil was fully occupied in taking the sheets off the press and handing them out to the spectators, who clamoured for a copy of this “First Edition.”

Sketch of the Typographical Union, Local 85, float. Note the Printers Devil, sitting up behind the driver.(St. John Daily Telegraph, September 4, 1894)

In the 1883 parade, the Tinsmiths Union’s float had four apprentices, busily engaged in manufacturing patty pans and scattering them among the spectators. The Bakers Union’s float featured a steam engine and biscuit cutting and rolling machines. Biscuits were being manufactured and distributed to the crowd of onlookers. The Cotton Spinners had a large float with a black youth picking cotton. The cotton in its different processes was presented, right up to the finished yarn. The Carriage Workers Union had a large float, prettily trimmed with bunting. A woodworker, a painter and a blacksmith were busily engaged at the vocation of carriage making. The Tailors float—drawn by four milk white horses—depicted the “Garden of Eden.” Adam and Eve stood under the apple tree, while the serpent remained coiled around its trunk.

In 1903, Local 429 of the Plumbers Union displayed a float showing a modern bathroom, with a bath and shower. By a clever device, the water was turned on and kept running from the showerhead while the float was in motion. The Mortar Men & Building Labourers Union’s float consisted of a large mortar bed, in which members of the union demonstrated the way and the process by which the mortar used in their daily work was prepared for the masons. Perhaps one of the most artistic floats was that of the Freight Handlers Union, Local 276. It represented a section of the I.C.R. railway line. The sketch showed a freight train entering an iron bridge over a river crossing, while underneath the water flowed into the depths of the forest. It was made more realistic by small branches of spruce trees appropriately arranged on each side of the embankment. Telegraph poles, on which all the necessary wires were strung, cross bars, et cetera, ran alongside the railway track. The float was decorated with bunting and from the poles placed in the four corners, strings of steamers of all colours were strung. One of the more popular floats was that of the Cigar Makers. It consisted of a number of their members busily making cigars and distributing them to the spectators along the route.

The banners in the early Labour Day parades were also impressive. Almost every local union had their own banner. The union would commission an artist to design and paint the banner or a member of the union who possessed the necessary talent would craft it. In the 1883 parade, the Tailors carried a banner loaned to them by the Tailors Society of Boston. The banner was composed of silk, fringed with gold, golden tassels and cord. On one side was a representation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with Eve being in the act of handing the forbidden fruit to Adam. The serpent, looking on, was coiled around a tree. Printed on the banner were the words, “Journeymen Tailors Protective Society, organized September 20, 1806.” On the reverse side was the tailor’s emblem, a lamb. Above the legend were the words, “In Union there is Strength.” On top of the staff was a golden eagle.

In the same parade, the Painters Union had a special banner made for the occasion. It was designed by local artist Nicoli Nielsen and displayed the painter’s coat of arms—two panthers with their forepaws resting on a shield. On top of the shield was a phoenix, rising from the fire. The shield bore beneath it, on red ribbon, the motto, “Amor et Obediento”—love and obedience. Over the coat of arms was “Centennial” and beneath “1883.” On the reverse side was a beautiful art piece, representing Cupid, seated on the world, bearing a pallet and brush in his hand. The banner was composed of silk and trimmed with red plush and gold.

In 1883, the Typographical Union displayed a banner that was painted by a Saint John artist—Mr. Gibson of Brussels St. On one side was the seal of the union, consisting of hand and power press, frame and cases and an imposing stone, with men working at the various branches. A red ribbon was painted above and beneath it the words: “Organized February 26, 1881, St. John Typographical Union, NO. 85.” On the other side was the printer’s coat of arms, painted in gold and black on a blue background, and on a red ribbon with green tassels was inscribed: “The Art preservative of all Arts.” The banner was trimmed with gold fringe, braid and tassels and the staves were black with gilded rope. The union was still displaying this banner in the 1913 Labour Day parade.

In the 1894 parade, the Tailors Union carried a banner representing the first tailor and tailoress, just as they were leaving the Garden of Eden. The image of Adam and Eve fleeing the garden was a traditional image for the tailors. The wearing of very skimpy forms of dress showed the need for tailors in the world’s earliest history. Eve had one hand covering her breast and her other hand over her face, obviously shamed and needing clothes. This banner—which was described by a reporter at the time as being “richly suggestive”—is one of the few banners from the early Labour Day parades that has survived. The banner is currently on display at the New Brunswick Museum in Market Square.

Tailors banner, displayed in the 1894 Labour Day Parade. (New Brunswick Museum)

In the same parade, the Iron Moulders Union carried the banner that they had carried in the parade of 1853 during the “turning of the first sod.” It was made of silk and had a large eagle painted on the top. Underneath was the picture of a locomotive and car. On one side was a cupola (15) and on the other side was an engine beam. The Carpenters Union carried a banner at the head of their procession that portrayed St. Paul’s Church. The motto, “Labour Conquers Everything” was printed on it and the spaces in the corners and at the bottom were decorated with squares, compasses, saws, planes, hammers and other carpenter’s implements.

It was also the practice in these early parades for all the members of the same organization to be uniformly dressed. The dress usually had some relationship to their craft. For instance, the members of the Tinsmiths Union wore glittering tin helmets of their own making, tin cuffs, tin belts, black pants, blue shirts with a shield-shaped breast plate trimmed with white and bearing on it a hammer and shears crossed. The Bakers wore white aprons in the parades. In the 1883 parade the Baker’s Chief Marshall, Thomas Rankin, had on an apron that was worn by his father at the laying of the corner stone of the Mechanics Institute in 1839. Painted on the apron were loaves of bread and a scale. It is believed that this apron is the same one that is currently in the archives at the New Brunswick Museum. The Carpenters and Masons would also wear aprons, which were decorated with implements of their trade. The Painters would be dressed with white pants, white shirts, white ties, and white yachting caps. Most participants also wore badges or ribbons attached to their lapels.

As previously stated, the Saint John parades were more of a festive event, where the main goal of the street demonstration was to gain respectability and to become accepted by the broader community. Beneath the surface, however, there was some evidence of class-consciousness. Occasionally, some trade unions would take advantage of the parades to display banners with such slogans as: “Our aim and object is to secure for labour its just rights and privileges”—“We’ll vote for our friends.”—“Labour has a right to organize.”—“The bone and sinew of this country must be recognized in its politics.”—“We demand manhood suffrage.”—“Organized labour shall triumph.”—“More justice and less law.”—“St. John labour is overtaxed.”

The parade participants would assemble on King Street East, (16) then wind through the city streets, proceed as far north as Adelaide and Victoria Streets, and end up at the Exhibition Grounds in the South End. It was common to have public officials participate, either by riding in the parade or viewing it from City Hall or some other prominent position. Dignitaries would ride in a barouche (17) with senior labour officials. For example, in the 1913 Labour Day parade His Worship Mayor Fink, businessman and philanthropist W.F. Hatheway, and a former president of the Trades and Labour Council, William Coates, rode together. Other barouches contained the local Member of Parliament, Honourable John E. Wilson, and five members of the Provincial Legislative Assembly—including J.B.M. Baxter and Leonard P.D. Tilley, both of whom went on to become Premier of the province.

The 1913 parade would prove to be the end of the elaborate Labour Day parades in Saint John. In 1918 the Trades and Labour Council did join with veterans of WWI to organize a Labour Day parade and a week long fair in the St Andrews Rink. The parade—which commenced on Douglas Avenue, proceeded to King Square and ended at the St. Andrews Rink—consisted mostly of veterans and the wives and children of the soldiers who fell in France.

It would be 1932 before the next Labour Day parade would take place in the city. Between 1913 and 1932 the Trades and Labour Council did very little to celebrate Labour Day. With the exception of 1918 and 1919—where they again held a labour fair at the St Andrews Rink—the local labour movement did not organized any major activities. When they again decided to organize a parade the era of spectacular Labour Day parades in the city had passed. The crowds that turned out to witness the 1932 event were small and the floats, the unique dress and the spectacular banners were at a minimum. (18) The parade participants consisted more of corporations—advertising their ware—than trade unions showing off their craft. (19) The following year the Trades and Labour Council held a weeklong fair at the North End Improvement League Grounds. (20) Over a quarter of a century would pass before the local labour movement would again celebrate the holiday in any meaningful way. For the next twenty-seven years Labour Day in Saint John became just another holiday for workers and their families, a day of leisure to spend with family and friends.

Bricklayers & Masons Union parading along City Road during the 1932 Labour Day Parade. Their banner is the same banner they carried in the 1883 Centennial parade. Note the lack of spectators watching the event. (George Sabean photo)

It is interesting to note that in the early years the local labour movement participated in some “Labour Sunday” services. Labour Sunday first came about in the United States when the Reverend Charles Stelzle spearheaded the Protestant churches decision in 1905 to designate the day before Labour Day as “Labour Sunday,” an occasion for sermons devoted to labour themes. (21) Later, in 1909, the American Federation of Labour passed a resolution adopting the Sunday preceding Labour Day as Labour Sunday and dedicating it to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labour movement. (22)

In Canada, the non-denominational Social Service of Canada issued guidelines for the occasion. Saint John would sometimes hold non-denominational services, where labour leaders of various faiths would attend. The Labour Sunday sermons would advocate the virtues of the “Protestant work ethic” of hard work and the need for industrial peace. In 1931 the Reverend Brice Knott, of the Central Baptist Church, preached a sermon under the theme, “The Christian principles of permanent industrial peace.” The Reverend noted, however, that the only real agitator was injustice. “Remove the injustice and the agitation ceases,” said the Reverend. The Reverend Hamilton of Carmarthen Street Methodist Church had a different message for labour. The theme of his sermon was temperance. He protested the Bartenders Union’s right to participate in the Labour Day parade. He said, “The results of their work are broken hearted women, destitute children and drunken men, dishevelled and dwelling in their drunkenness. As these are the result of their work, I protest them having a place in the procession.” Labour throughout the country would hear similar lectures during “Labour Sunday” sermons. Occasionally, however, some preachers were sympathetic to labour. For instance, the Reverend J.C. Cochrane of Sudbury, Ontario defended the Winnipeg General Strike by arguing that workers were merely fighting for a living wage, suggesting, “It would look more like justice if machine guns and bayonet were turned on the profiteers.” (23)

The idea of a Labour Sunday largely disappeared in the late 1940’s. In the pre-war period observers were beginning to notice the trend away from Labour Sunday. In 1947 the Globe and Mail commented that, “even the churches, which at one time found the opportunity valuable, now largely disregard their obligations in the matter.” By the 1950’s, the churches recognized that there were few willing listeners. Labour Sunday had become a thing of the past.

In 1960, the Saint John Labour Council decided to revive the observance of the holiday with a parade. They established a Labour Day parade committee under the Chairmanship of John Simonds, who at the time was the Atlantic representative for the Bakery & Confectionary International Union. The committee organized what was described as “A Parade on Wheels.” More than one hundred vehicles, representing nearly fifty local unions, made up the parade and over 25 floats were entered. Three of the trucks contained local bands, which provided martial music for the event. The 3rd Median AA Regiment Band was under the direction of Capt. Bruce Holder. Others were: the 1st Battalion Royal N.B. Regiment with Lieut. A.S. Janes holding the baton, and the Caledonia Pipe Band under William Dalzall. To lend some colour to the observance, the committee arranged to have Miss Saint John, Sylvia Weaver and Miss New Brunswick, Connie Owens, participate in the parade, by riding on the back seat of convertibles.

A large number of spectators turned out to witness the procession. Trophies were awarded for the best three floats, with the Lancaster Firefighters Association, Local 1302, being awarded first prize. Their float was an antique piece of fire apparatus. Second place went to the Marine Workers, Local 3, whose float showed the prow of a ship with workers engaged in the ship’s construction. The third place went to a float entered by a Local of the Canadian Union of Building Product Workers. Their float was a model house, complete with patio and lawn chairs. Judges for the event were Phillip Oland, President of Moosehead Breweries, W.B. Main, Principal of Saint John Vocational School and Deputy Mayor James A. Whitebone. The trophies were presented by the Deputy Mayor, who at that time was also President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and President of the Labour Council. The committee Chairman told the media that the parade was so successful that the Labour Council planned to make it an annual event.

Labour Day 1960. Lancaster Firefighters Assoc., Local 1302, on the Golden Mile (Fairville Blvd.) Their antique fire apparatus was judged to be the best float in the 1960 Labour Day Parade. This fire apparatus is now displayed at the Firefighters Museum in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. (L. Kingston photo)

The following year, the Labour Council did organize a parade, but the turnout for the 1961 event was significantly less. The Caledonian Pipe Band was the only band in the parade and just thirteen floats participated. Local 771, of the International Association of Firefighters, had five pieces of fire apparatus in the procession.

The parade participants gathered on Lancaster’s Golden Mile and at 2:00pm advanced along Manawagonish Road to Main Street West, crossed the Reversing Falls Bridge and proceeded along Douglas Avenue, continuing down Main Street and over the viaduct to Dock Street (now St. Patrick St.) to King. At the head of King the parade continued around the Square down Sydney and Prince Edward Streets to Thorne Avenue and Russell Street. From Russell Street it began the tour back toward the city via Rothesay Avenue and City Road, to Cranston Avenue, and along Wellesley Avenue to the Fairview Plaza.

At the Fairview Plaza the floats were judged by James A. Whitebone, President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and the Saint John District Labour Council, John (Lofty) MacMillan, Regional Director of the National Union of Public Employees and J. Harold Stafford, Atlantic Director of Education for the Canadian Labour Congress. Judged to have the best float was Local 3, Marine Workers from the Dry Dock, with second prize going to Local 213, United Association of Journeymen and Apprentice of the Plumbers and Pipefitters of America. Third prize was awarded to Local 1386, International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Following the judging of the floats the spectators were entertained with a display of Highland dancing.

The International Association of Firefighters, Local 771 line up various pieces of their fire apparatus on the Golden Mile (Fairville Blvd.), in preparation for the 1961 Labour Day parade. (Vintage Photo & Frame Ltd.)

These Labour Day Parade celebrations were short lived. From the mid 1960’s, to the mid 1990’s, Labour Day became just another holiday. (24) In the mid 1970’s—when I was president of the Labour Council—we viewed the holiday with some aversion. Many of us saw May Day as the workers holiday and bought into the myth that Labour Day was established by the bosses and declared a public holiday to preclude workers from celebrating May Day, a day with some historical significance and supported by the more progressive elements of the labour movement. Our preparation for Labour Day consisted of issuing a news release condemning governments for their inaction on social and economic issues and claiming that working people had very little reason to celebrate. We would then take advantage of the long week-end to spend it with our families. There was little motivation for us to put our time and resources into Labour Day activities.

In 1995, however, the Labour Council executive decided to observe the holiday by organizing a “Labour Day Picnic” at Rockwood Park. The picnic was open to the general public and was well received. Indeed, the picnic was so popular that it has become an annual event. For the children there are clowns and magicians, face painting, pony rides and rides on the Tally-Ho wagon or the antique fire truck. Stage shows of singing, dancing and bands are occasionally on hand to entertain the hundreds who flocked to the park for this Labour Day celebration. Labour Council members are kept busy attending to the barbeques and handing out free hotdogs, hamburgers, soft drinks and other confectionery treats. The picnic will likely continue to be a Labour Day Festival.

Labour Council delegates were kept busy attending to the barbeques at the 2001 Labour Day Picnic.

The Saint John Trades and Labour Council was first organized in 1890, but 2003 marked the 100th anniversary since the Labour Council had received its charter from the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada. The Labour Council organized a number of events to mark the Centennial, one of which was a Labour Day Parade. Over two hundred trade unionists gathered in the parking lot at Harbour Station to take their place in the line up. Some unions had prepared floats; others were on foot displaying their banners, while others rode in antique automobiles. As the parade got underway, St. Mary’s Band broke into a rendition of 76 trombones. Some out of town guests participated in the parade, including Brian Payne, President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada. Riding on the back of an antique convertible were Linda Gallant, Atlantic Regional Director for the Canadian Labour Congress and Marie Walker, Executive Vice-President of the Congress. Mayor Shirley McAlary also joined the parade, riding in a horse and buggy. The parade proceeded along City Road to Rockwood Park where the annual Labour Day picnic got underway. This was the first Labour Day Parade held in the city in forty-two years. (25) The Labour Council has continued to make the parade an annual event, but the success of this endeavour is questionable. The participation has not been great and few spectators are lined along the parade route.

New Brunswick NDP leader Elizabeth Weir and Labour Council President Bill Farren leading the 2003 Labour Day Parade along City Road. This was the first Labour Day Parade held in the city in 42 years. (S.J.D.L.C. photo)


I was moved to research and, subsequently, write this article as a result of the many comments I had heard over the years about the spectacular Labour Day parades that used to take place in the city. I was struck by how big an occasion Labour Day was supposed to be for the local labour movement and wondered why the celebrations had disappeared. However, a vigilant research on the matter has illustrated that the labour movement in Saint John never seized the holiday with much enthusiasm. The first Labour Day parade, in 1894, was a marvellous event, which must have taken considerable time and resources. One year later, however, the Labour Day parade contained only one float and few participants. The following year there were not any activities planned by organized labour. So, it would be incorrect to advocate that there was enthusiasm for the holiday in the early years and that this enthusiasm waned as time went on. A more accurate explanation would be that the fervour for the holiday was short lived and the demise of the celebrations started almost immediately, only being revived sporadically. In the hundred years following the declaration of Labour Day, the local labour movement organized just eight Labour Day parades in the city—1894, 1895, 1902, 1903, 1913, 1932, 1960, 1961. Sometimes the day was celebrated with picnics and Labour Day fairs, but the vast majority of Labour Days passed without any activities planned by the local labour movement. Labour did, however, participate in other parades held in the city. For example, the Saint John Trades and Labour Council displayed an elaborate float in a parade called “Celebration of Soldiers Day” on August 14, 1919. The purpose of that parade was to welcome home the soldiers from WWI, and on June 19, 1932 more than 250 police and firefighters paraded through the city in recognition of the 55th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1877.

It would not be fair to suggest that the Saint John labour movement neglected to fulfill their responsibilities by failing to exploit the day for their own advantage. The history of Labour Day in Saint John is very similar to the history of Labour Day in many Canadian communities. There was never a consensus among Canadian labour leaders on what the day stood for and, as it had little historical significance, there never was a gut feeling for the holiday. Also, there was the problem of others in society seizing the day for their own purposes. As previously stated, the capitalists took advantage of the holiday in pursuit of profits, and sport organizations, churches, civic, political and other groups quickly captured the day for their own functions, which changed the holiday in many ways. (26) It is important to remember that many active trade unionists were also active members of these other groups, so the competition for the day was intense. A further distraction was that the popular St. John Exhibition was moved to open on the Labour Day Weekend. (27) Moreover, sustaining a parade or other festivals on an annual basis was beyond the means of most unions, many of whom were fighting for their very existence against anti-union employers.

In recent years, there has been some interest within the local labour movement to celebrate May Day. For instance, on May 1, 2001, the Saint John District Labour Council held a noon hour rally in front of City Hall where participants heard from a number of speakers, including Mayor Shirley McAlary. Also, the Hatheway Trust have been holding an annual “May Day” dinner, as a fundraiser to support their activities. Other May Day functions have been held and the Moncton Labour Council has been organizing annual May Day events. Perhaps, in the 21st Century, May Day will emerge as the more popular Workers Festival.

George Vair is a former representative with the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union, Local 1065 and a former President of the Saint John District Labour Council and a former Vice-president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour. He has written a number of articles on the history of the labour movement in Saint John and is the author of one book entitled “The Struggle Against Wage Controls.” He is now retired and living in Saint John.

  1.  May Day evolved from the struggle for the eight-hour day.
  2.  US Department of Labour website
  3.  In the 14 September, 1895 minutes book of the St. John Typographical Union, Local 85, the Labour Day Parade Committee reported: “Believing that gentlemen belonging to a body such as ours should be govern by the wishes of the majority of its members, your committee would feel that they were remiss in their duty if they did not ask this union to pass a vote of censure on those members who, without any apparent excuse, failed to appear in the parade. We believe such actions on their part has put the strength of this union in a wrong light before the public of St. John.”
  4.  The August 17, 1903 minutes book of the St. John Longshoremen Association show were a motion was made to fine any member refusing to take part in the Labour Day Parade the sum of $2.00
  5.  The August 31, 1894 issue of the St. John Globe commented that perhaps Labour Day was unnecessary, “as labour already has too many enforced rests.”
  6.  From the first Labour Day Parade in 1894, the local labour movement welcomed participation in the parade of the corporations. For instance, in the 1894 parade, more than a dozen companies participated, advertising their wares.
  7.  The minutes of the October 13, 1894 meeting of the St John Typographical Union, Local 85 show the cost of the 1894 parade to the Local was $151.91—a considerable amount for the times—and the August 16, 1902 minutes of the same union show where the members voted against procuring a float for that year’s Labour Day parade, as the cost was considered “beyond the limits” of the union.
  8.  At the May 13, 1896 meeting of the Trades and Labour Council, the minute’s book shows that a motion was passed ordering the council secretary to communicate with the different unions of the city and ascertain their views on Labour Day activities. Some delegates suggested a good way to celebrate Labour Day would be to have “A Grand Labour Day Picnic.”
  9.  St. John Standard, September 2, 1913
  10.  A soft felt hat with a low crown and medium brim. Both sides wore it during the American Civil War. It is also known as the slouch hat.
  11.  The Ship Labourers Union were the Longshoremen. They changed their name to Longshoremen Association in 1903 and in 1911 received a charter—Local 273—from the International Longshoremen Association.
  12.  Curved projections that are attached to the collar of a horse, to which the traces are fastened.
  13.  A cluster of distinctive feathers. Attached to the top of the bridle on the horse’s head.
  14.  Unions would strike a committee to build the float. For instance, the minute’s book of the 1913 plumber’s union, Local 531, records that the members passed a motion authorizing John Hughes to take a day off work and procure the necessary materials required to build a float. A committee—of John Hughes, John O’Brien and Larry Lambert—was appointed to construct the float. The members then voted that all plumbers participating in the parade would wear black shirt, black pants, black boots and white tie.
  15.  A vertical cylindrical furnace, used for melting iron in the foundry.
  16.  The only exception was the 1902 Labour Day parade, where participants gathered at the Labour Hall on the corner of Chipman Hill and Union Street.
  17.  A barouche is a four-wheel carriage with a driver’s seat high in front, two double seats inside facing each other and a folding top over the back seat.
  18.  There was, however, some resemblance of the early parades—For example, the Masons and Plasters Union carried the same banner in this parade that they displayed in the Centennial parade of 1883 and the Longshoremen had again brought out the model ship “Robert Reed.”
  19.  Just nine unions participated in this parade, while thirty-two corporations participated, some of whom had a history of anti-union activity.
  20.  It is ironic that the Trades and Labour Council—whose members the day was intended for—were denied the use of the Exhibition Grounds for their Labour Day event. The Labour Council President, James A. Whitebone, announced, “That plans had been changed because permission for use of the exhibition building was refused.”
  21.  The Workers Festival—A History of Labour Day in Canada—Craig Heron and Steve Penfold
  22.  US Department of Labour website
  23.  The Workers Festival—A History of Labour Day in Canada—Craig Heron and Steve Penfold
  24.  The exception being Labour Day 1980, when a dinner and dance were held to launch the official opening of the Saint John Labour Club.
  25.  On September 17, 1992, Trade Unionists did parade through the city’s streets with floats and banners. The purpose of the parade was to protest the Free Trade Agreement. At that time some labour leaders described it as a “Labour Day Parade.” However, this was held two weeks after Labour Day and cannot be accurately portrayed as such.
  26.  For example, there were the Labour Day Weekend baseball tournaments, the Labour Day horse races at Moosepath, the Labour Day church picnics, the Labour Day performances at the theaters and the special Labour Day Weekend boat and train excursions out of the city.
  27.  During the 1920’s, Labour Day would witness twenty-five to thirty thousands citizens pass through the turnstiles at the St. John Exhibition Grounds.