History of Labour Day in Australia, Canada, USA

Labour Day parade of 1905
A photo of the Labour Day Parade from 1905. It was taken on Queen St. West, looking east from a point just west of Givins St. It was originally a silver gelatin print. Creator: Blakey, Joseph Adamson (1870-1937) Format: Picture Rights: Public domain Courtesy: Toronto Public Library.

Labour Day or May Day or International Workers’ Day is mostly celebrated around the globe on May 1 each year. However, USA and Canda celebrated Labor Day on Monday (September 7) this week. Labour Day is traditionally celebrated on the first Monday of September in the USA and Canada. Let us delve into the history of Labour Day.

The recognition of the contributions of working-class people as Labour Day culminated through the labour movement in the 19th century. The labour movement consisted of two major points. Firstly, the struggle for the formation of trade unions and secondly, the demand for eight-hour working limit.

Nevertheless, Labour Day is celebrated to acknowledge the labour movement and the efforts, sacrifice, advancement and accomplishments of working-class people worldwide. While many countries usually give a public holiday on Labour Day, others might not do so. Moreover, the date and ways to celebrate might differ from country to country on account of country-specific history.

Let us shed light on the labour movement and the history of Labour Day in Australia, America and Canada.

Origins of the labour movement

Labour conditions in the 1800s

Obviously, in the 19th century, the world was significantly different from today. The 1800s lacked the technology and media that is omnipresent today and in addition, the times nurtured the slave trade legally then. Britain abolished slavery for the country and parts of the British empire in 1833 and America later abolished it in 1865.

Though slavery largely concerned Black people, the proletariat White people also found themselves at the receiving end during the 19th century. Workers did not have rights, benefits, holidays and they had to work for up to sixteen hours per day on low wages. Moreover, workers faced abuses, the strict condition set by employers and abrupt sackings on the whims of employers. Such condition of workers led them to organise themselves and demand better working conditions and facilities.

Eight-hour day campaign in Australia

hand of stonemason at work
Hand of a stonemason at work Photo: Pikist

On August 18, 1855, the Stonemasons Society in Sydney gave an ultimatum to employers saying masons would only work for eight-hour after six months. The word about the ultimatum spread. After that, men working on the Garrison Church in Argyle Cut and then-Mariners Church decided not to wait. They acted immediately to launch a strike and won the eight-hour day. Later they celebrated with a victory dinner on October 1, 1855.

Likewise, on April 21, 1856, workers in and around Melbourne, Victoria, stopped their work and marched unitedly from the University of Melbourne to the Parliament House demanding an eight-hour work limit. The workers finally achieved their demand for an eight-hour workday and inspired worker across the country and beyond. In subsequent years, workers continued the annual procession to mark the day and further inspire the working-class.

However, workers of all industries had not received the eight-hour day. Later after the United Kindom enacted Trade Union Act 1871, trade unions came into existence. It took further campaigning and protests by trade unions to expand the eight-hour workday to all workers in Australia. The Australian State of Victoria passed the Eight Hours Act only in 1916. By 1920, the provision was adopted nationally but in a six-day workweek context. The present-day five-day (forty-hour) workweek was implemented after January 1, 1948.

Legalisation of trade unions in Europe

For long, governments and business owners resisted the labourers from organising. To the capitalist world, trade unions represented losses to their enterprises, licence to hold strikes, a fair wage, end to owner’s abuses and many other conditions favouring the worker.

Let us keep in mind, that the First Industrial Revolution continued nearly until the mid-1800s. And the process of industrialising required more and more labourers. Even children, women, disable and elderly had to work. There were no labour laws restricting child labour or coercing people into work, not to forget slave labourers. In such a time, authorities in industrial Europe despised labour unions.

However, workers continued to meet secretly. They formed unions in disguise and kept advocating for the welfare of the working men. They kept agitations alive until trade unions became legal. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, trade unions were legalised in the UK, Canada and Australia, among other countries, after a long debate that concluded they would benefit both the employer and employees. The move of legalising labour unions gradually expanded to other industrialised European nations. By the 20th century, political ideology was highly engaged with the labour movement and trade unions.

Labour movement goes international with IWA

The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) founded in 1864 in London emerged as the main organisation that tried to organisers workers internationally. Though it collapsed in 1876, it saw the participation of the French, Germans, Italians and Belgians, among others. German philosopher Karl Marx attended the Association’s founding meeting on September 28 that year and later became an influential member in the IWA.

Bust of Karl Marx
Photo: Pixabay

The first congress of the IWA held in Geneva in 1866 drafted a resolution to make the eight-hour workday a key demand of the Association. Since IWA was the first organisation to advocate for an international movement of workers, it was also known as First International. The IWA split in the 1870s and the Second International was formed later to take up the work of the First International.

Labor Day
Source: Redspark

The Second International formed in 1889 in Paris initiated a global campaign for an eight-hour workday. It also declared May 1 as International Workers’ Day in its founding year. The Second International’s another notable work is the declaration of International Women’s Day in 1910. It disbanded after World War I.

Today, most countries in the world, in line with the Second International’s declaration, celebrate May 1 as Labour Day. There might be country-specific ways to celebrate but nevertheless, the day is commemorated.

American, Canadian history of Labor Day

During the 1800s, Americans and Canadians worked for over 12 hours/day, seven days/week, for meagre wages. Young children of 5 or 6 worked tirelessly in factories and the flow of immigrants from Europe had made labour cheap. The increase in the labour force had benefited factory owners and contractors, but life was rough for the working class.

People faced unacceptable conditions to just make a living by working. Working conditions were demanding, competition high and rest inadequately for workers. Likewise, employers never promised sick days, paid vacations, or insurance coverage to their employees. This situation made labourers to became more organized into labour unions. As a result, workers began protesting and became more prominent and vocal, demanding improvement in working conditions.

Trade unions

Craft unions, an association of people belonging to the same line of work, existed since the early 1800s. But the craft unions were region-specific and their prices, services varied accordingly. In addition, an influential federation organising unions of various trades did not exist until the 1850s. The National Labour Union founded in 1866 became the first national labour federation in America but it dissolved in 1873. Nevertheless, it furthered the eight-hour working day condition and sought legislative reforms concerning the rights and interests of workers. After that, another regional union gained popularity and influence, namely Knights of Labor (KoL), which operated in Canada as well.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the formation of the Canadian Labour Union in 1873 proved a failed attempt to organise at a large-scale. In addition, the Nine-Hour Movement demanding nine-hour working day too did not materialise. The frontiers for voicing the workers’ demands were not making much progress. The Knights of Labor, meanwhile, provided autonomy to different regional assemblies. Subsequently, Toronto Trades and Labour Council and the Knights of Labor initiated a call for Trades and Labor Congress of Canada and formed it in 1883. It significantly improved labour conditions in Canada, by reducing working hours, ending Asian immigration, child labour and convict labour, among other issues.

Likewise, The American Federation of Labor (AFL), a national federation of labour unions in the United States, founded in Columbus, Ohio, in December 1886.

Canada inspired Labor Day parade in America

Canada legalised labour unions after its Parliament passed the Trade Unions Act on June 14, 1872. Several labour demonstrations scattered across the country had led to such a move. The achievement was widely celebrated and labour unions drove the labour movement ahead.

Ten years later on July 22, 1882, a huge labour celebration held in Toronto caught the attention of American labour leader Peter J. McGuire. McGuire later that year organised a similar parade in New York on September 5, the first Labor Day parade of United States of America. Though the initial plan of the parade was a one-time event, the tradition continued ever since. Around 10,000 workers marched from City Hall to Union Square in New York in the first-ever Labor Day parade.

Though labour conditions in Canada started to gradually improve, America still strived for improved conditions.

The culmination into Haymarket bombing in Chicago

portrait for Haymarket affair
A portrait depicting the Haymarket riot

America convulsed in labour demonstrations and strikes everywhere with the demand of eight-hour workday since 1882. Workers staged various programmes and events by abandoning their work as a form of protests everywhere, which at times turned violent. Nevertheless, the labour movement gained momentum with the involvement of labour unions such as KoL and AFL in the mid-1880s.

By 1886, the relations between the labour movement and KoL hit its lowest point. People started to ditch the KoL. But the newly formed AFL had embraced the cause of workers with enthusiasm. The AFL and KoL called for a mass strike, to last for multiple days across the country to achieve eight-hour workday, starting May 1, 1886. The mass strike was largely peaceful initially but on following days violent confrontations took place between police and workers.

On May 4, while the police were trying to disperse workers in Haymarket Square in Chicago, someone threw a bomb at police officers. After the incident, the mass went haywire and a riot broke out that resulted in the death of eight people. The bomb killed one policeman, but many died in the melee that followed. Not knowing who threw the bomb caused policemen to shoot their own also. That day proved a dark day, which badly hurt the American labour movement.

But beyond America, the Second Internation started to commemorate the Haymarket bombing in recognition of workers’ movement. Ultimately, it declared May 1 as the International Workers’ Day three years later.

1887 to 1894

From 1887 to 1894, as many as 30 states of the United States had officially started to celebrate Labor Day. Oregon became the first state to declare Labor Day as a public holiday in 1887.

In 1894, Congress passed a bill recognising the first Monday of September as Labor Day and making it an official federal holiday. The then-President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law on June 28. But only federal workers enjoyed the federal holiday, and it did not apply to general workers. The Congress chose September instead of May 1 due to May 1’s connection with communism and communists.

Likewise, Canada was under pressure after the US declaration of Labor Day as a federal holiday. And nearly a month later on July 23 that year, Canada too passed a law to declare Labor Day as a national holiday.

Varying dates for Labour Day across Australia

Labour Day in Australia is also a holiday but the dates differ between states and territories. Consult the table below for dates.

States and Territories Labour Day

Australian Capital Territory,
New South Wales and
South Australia

First Monday in October
Western Australia First Monday in March
Victoria and
Second Monday in March
Queensland and
Northern Territory
First Monday in March












Keep following Wikye.com