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: