The marshals had their hands full pulling together the 3,000 workers who converged on Market Square in London, Ontario on September 3, 1894.
It was the first nationally recognized Labour Day in Canada, and the local labour movement was out in full force. Eventually, the first union contingents headed off down the city’s main streets under the blazing sun.
Leading the way was a group of 75 butchers on horseback, who set the tone of respectable craftsmanship with their crisply white shirts and hats and clean baskets on their arms.
Several other groups presented themselves in identical outfits – the firemen from the railway car shops in their white shirts and black felt hats, the printers in their navy blue yachting caps (the apprentices wore brown), the barbers in their plug hats and white jackets.
From The Workers’ Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada, authored by Craig Heron and Steven Penfold, published in 2005.
Although the official recognition of Labour Day with a Labour Day Parade in Canada began on September 3, 1894, it was not until the 1950s that African-Canadian workers made an appearance in these parades.
There were individual African-Canadians who had been used as comic relief in these all-White Labour Day Parades before the 1950s. According to Heron and Penfold:
“There was rarely any space for African and native Canadians. On the few occasions when people of colour appeared in these marches, they were presented as curiosities, not fellow workers.”
The authors cite a few occasions when racialized people were used during these Labour Day Parades of yesteryear:
“Plumbers’ unions sometimes used Black youngsters as comic accents to the gleaming white-enamel fixtures on their float. In one case in Toronto, the tableau was an older woman trying to scrub the “dirt” off a Black boy.
“In a similar vein, a float in the 1911 Calgary parade depicted what a newsman called ‘a big Black ni_ _ _r wench’ trying to do her laundry amid domestic turmoil, in contrast to the electrical appliances on display at the other end of the float.
“The few native people who appeared were incorporated as exotic athletes and as circus clowns.”
Acknowledging the racial prejudice to which racialized workers were subjected even after African-Canadian and other racialized men had made the ultimate sacrifice during the two European tribal conflicts (World Wars I and II) Heron and Penfold write:
“The struggles of minorities for acceptance within the house of labour were not over after the Second World War, but the appearance of representatives of minority groups on Labour Day signalled their determination to be admitted as full members.
“Two contingents of marchers in Toronto Labour Day parades of the 1950s symbolized their own triumph over racist indifference and hostility inside unions – the all-Black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the so-called Brandon Group of residential construction workers.”
Now, in the 21st century, unions and their members (the working class) are under attack internationally. Many of the rights workers enjoy today came about because of the labour movement.
The eight-hour workday, public holidays and the right to strike were not given to workers by the bosses and capitalist captains of industry. Those were attained after decades of struggle.
An example of the struggle against the capitalist captains of industry occurred in Toronto when the Printer’s Union joined the Nine-Hour Movement advocating for shorter work hours – 58 hours per week.
The owners of the printing shops, including George Brown, owner and editor of The Globe, thought the demand was outrageous. The Printers Union went on strike against the print shops in Toronto on March 25, 1872.
The bosses brought in replacement “scab workers”. Brown sued the Printer’s Union and under the “Combination Act” of 1799 which prohibited trade unions and collective bargaining, the picketing workers were arrested and jailed. Many printers lost their jobs.
Brown’s political enemy, John A. Macdonald, who was the Canadian Prime Minister at the time, seized the opportunity to embarrass Brown and gain some political advantage by championing workers’ rights.
On June 14, 1872 Macdonald’s government passed the “Trade Union Act” which legalized and protected trade unions making it legal for workers to unionize to improve their working conditions. Workers were able to negotiate and win a 54-hour work week.
Here is the conundrum: George Brown, strike breaker and erstwhile enemy of the White working class in Toronto, was seen as a friend and supporter of enslaved Africans in the USA. He is listed as a founder of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada and there are several plaques scattered around our fair city of Toronto where the man is honoured: http://torontoplaques.com/Pages_GHI/George_Brown.html.
One of the plaques even states that he mentored William Peyton Hubbard, who became the only African-Canadian in Toronto’s history to achieve the status of Deputy Mayor.
In The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! authors Afua Cooper, Adrienne Shadd and Karolyn Smardz Frost write: “William Hubbard, a baker by trade, was elected to the City Council in 1894 and served as Deputy Mayor of the city from 1904 to 1907.”
A more recent conundrum was presented with the slaughter of striking African mine workers from the Marikana Platinum Mine in South Africa. The mine workers were slaughtered by police in a South Africa governed by an African National Congress (ANC) government, the organization/political party famous for its struggle against a White supremacist apartheid government.
The slaughter of Africans occurred frequently during the illegal rule of the former regime but it is a shock to see this happening under an ANC-led government.
It leaves us wondering if apartheid has been replaced by something equally sinister where striking workers can be slaughtered with impunity and the mine owners are allowed to order the survivors to immediately get back to work or lose their jobs.
It leaves us wondering if in this 21st century and 18 years after Mandela was elected President of a “post-apartheid” South Africa the changes for working-class Africans (the vast majority) was just window dressing.
So, with Africans in the leadership of the country, a mining company owned by White people in Britain (Lonmin Platinum Mine) seem to be calling the shots. However this happens, the responsibility to uphold the laws of the land, including the labour laws, belong to the government of the land.
The responsibility to protect its citizens from exploitation by foreigners ultimately rests with this government. One labour activist at Saturday’s Toronto demonstration in support of the mine workers (both slaughtered and survivors) named this atrocity “state sponsored terrorism”.
Concerned people internationally have expressed their dismay and disgust at the slaughter of striking mine workers (44 as of press time) at the Marikana site in South Africa.
On Monday, September 3, 2012, when we march in the Labour Day parade, the mine workers of Marikana will be remembered as the latest martyrs in the workers’ labour struggle.
By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)