Labour’s love lost

For most Canadians, Labour Day is the last gasp of summer fun, but historically, there was much more to the holiday than just a day off, says a new book co-authored by York history professor Craig Heron.

“Labour Day, in its earliest incarnation, had much more in common with grassroots festivals like Caribana, Gay Pride and Mardi Gras,” says Heron, who teaches in the Faculty of Arts.

In The Workers’ Festival, Heron and co-author Steve Penfold chronicle how changes in culture and social life have altered the meaning of the holiday, from its origins as a spectacle of skilled workers in the 1880s through its declaration as a national statutory holiday in 1894, to its reinvention through the twentieth century.

Right: Craig Heron

The holiday’s inventors hoped to blend labour solidarity, community celebration and increased leisure time by organizing parades, picnics, speeches and other forms of respectable leisure. As the holiday has evolved, so too have the rituals, with trade unionists and other social groups re-shaping it and making it their own.

“It’s a term we use somewhat ironically,” says Heron of the book’s title. “It’s a story of a holiday that never really belonged to workers. Organized labour’s conception never represented the whole meaning of Labour Day.”

The artifacts of the early festivals – floats, costumes, banners and placards – have largely vanished, Heron says. “These items were a kind of popular art. They provided the last remaining glimpses of working-class cultures and deserve to be taken seriously in the wider cultural history of the country.” For this reason, the authors have included a large number of illustrations and archival photographs.

Published by University of Toronto Press, the book delves into many key themes of labour history – union politics and rivalries, radical movements, religion (Catholic and Protestant), race and gender, consumerism and leisure, public celebration, urban space and communication, and popular culture.

Heron and Penfold, a professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto, also examine how Labour Day’s monopoly as the workers’ holiday has been challenged, with alternative festivals arising such as May Day and International Women’s Day.