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Why it is important to remember the history of Labour Day

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Photo: Mark Cunningham
Photo: Mark Cunningham

By Shay Enxuga

This is the text of a speech given at Halifax's 2013 Labour Day rally. 

Labour Day is not only meant to be a day off from labour, but a day when we celebrate the history of labour. A day to celebrate working people, and a day to remember the contributions, victories, and fierce struggles of the workers who came before us.

I think it speaks to our time, and the rampant amnesia imposed on us by politicians, bosses, and dare I say the ruling class, that popular culture associates Labour Day with the last day to wear white (because god forbid, you should be caught committing that fashion faux pas at the country club), rather than associating Labour Day than with the 1872 Toronto Printers’ Union Strike... a time when the rest of us toilers were fighting for the right to unionize and the 9-hour work day.

In the United States, Labour Day was officially instituted in 1894 by President Cleveland as an attempt to placate the working class after calling the federal troops on striking Pullman railroad workers and violently breaking their strike in fights that left 30 workers dead and 57 injured.

I think it’s also fair to speculate that our friend Cleveland felt that giving workers a holiday to stay home and get drunk would better maintain class peace than the marches that commemorated the 1886 Haymarket Riot and martyrs only eight years earlier. Those martyrs had fought and died for the 8-hour work day.

I think it also speaks to our time that many workers in Canada no longer work 8-, or even 9-, hour days as we find ourselves freelancing or juggling multiple part-time jobs. And on Labour Day weekend, a time when we are supposed to kick back, relax, and picnic, many of the workers on the lowest rung of our economic ladder - retail workers, food service workers, cleaners - instead find ourselves working overtime to cater to the needs of hungry shoppers.

I am part of a generation that is entering the workforce in this neoliberal age of austerity. An age where were have seen our federal and provincial governments systematically gut social programs, slash funding to public sector jobs, pass anti-union legislation, and effectively plunge Nova Scotia into an economic crisis.

And I can’t exactly say that the situation is getting better.

In Halifax, a city that swells to accommodate more than 30,000 students annually, we have an appalling youth unemployment rate of 18%.

This reality, coupled with the fact that Nova Scotian students graduate with an average of $35,000 in debt (one of the highest in the country), means that we are struggling to pay off our debt while working part-time, non-union jobs in retail and food service. That is, if we are lucky enough to have a job at all.

So to every person who has ever told me to “go back and to school and get a better job,” all I can say is, been there, done that, and now it’s time for something new. Like the Fight for Fifteen that has been spreading across the United States this year, it is not surprising low-waged food service workers in Nova Scotia and abroad are organizing for change.

This is not new. Historically, it has often been the most marginalized workers, the most precarious and low-waged workers, who have been at the forefront of the struggle for social and economic justice.

And so here today, on Labour Day, I want us to remember.

Remember that even as political and economic power becomes more consolidated in the hands of the 1% under the guise of “freedom" - freedom for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, free markets and free trade - remember that even as the forces of capitalism becomes more and more insidious through the subtle erosion of workers' rights at home, like legislating away the right to strike for paramedics, or the exportation of exploitation abroad to places like Bangladesh - now, more than ever, we need to remember that we workers come from a long fighting tradition.

I want us to remember our history. Remember the fights, the strikes, and the losses. Remember those who gave their lives. Those who didn’t have “nothing to lose” but who instead risked everything.

Remember the fierce resistance, courage, and strength. Remember our defeats, our victories, and that the struggle continues.

And remember that like the 8-hour day, Labour Day, this day off, this day to move, see friends, celebrate, that this day too has a history. A history not of benevolent bosses, but of workers who stood up, fought, and took what they were owed.

Because today, I want us to remember that power is never given. Power is always taken.

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