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September 2021

Grounded in History
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Solidarity on Labor Day

Labor Day was officially made a federal holiday in the United States and Canada in 1894 but its origins date back even further. In the late 19th century, as the trade union movement grew, many labor leaders proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate their contribution to society. The first significant event from this effort in the U.S. occurred on Sept. 5, 1882, with a parade in New York City organized by the Central Labor Union (CLU), a precursor to the AFL. More than 20,000 laborers from various organizations all marched in a public display of solidarity.

The event was a major success and continued for several years but was eventually overshadowed by the Haymarket Affair of May 1886, which quickly garnered international attention. Suddenly there was disagreement among trade unions about when a labor holiday should be, with some advocating for the first Monday of September and others for the more politically charged May Day. In 1887, U.S. President Grover Cleveland, concerned about throwing his support to anarchist movements, publicly supported the September option as a less inflammatory alternative.

That same year, Oregon became the first state to make Labor Day a public holiday. By 1894, 30 states had done the same prompting Congress to pass a bill designating Labor Day as a federal holiday. With strong support from the AFL, President Cleveland signed the bill into law on June 28. Since that time, Labor Day parades have become a staple of American life, an unofficial end to the summer where many of our fellow citizens take time to celebrate the hard work and workers that fuel our two nations' economies.

Labor parades in Canada date back even further. The first one of note occurred in 1872 when a group of workers gathered in Toronto to support striking printers. Their protest led directly to the Trade Union Act, a law that confirmed the legality of unions. In May 1882, another Toronto labor celebration caught the attention of AFL Vice-President Peter J. McGuire, who brought the idea to the CLU of New York and helped to organize America's first labor parade that September. With Canadian and American unions working together, labor parades were soon held on the first Monday in September in both countries. In March 1894, unions successfully lobbied Parliament to recognize Labour Day as a public holiday in Canada. It was signed into law by Prime Minister John Thompson that July, less than a month after its U.S. counterpart.

While there have been notable Labor Day parades over the years, none have quite matched the significance of the one that occurred in 1981. On Sept. 19, just over 99 years since the first Labor Day parade, over a quarter million union members marched in Washington, D.C., in opposition to congressional cuts to vital federal programs and labor protection laws. Organized by the AFL-CIO and made up of more than 200 civic organizations, the event was titled "Solidarity Day" and symbolized the largest gathering of labor forces in U.S. history. And the IBEW stood tall amongst them.

Standing in the vanguard of the march were more than 25,000 IBEW sisters and brothers stretching six blocks along Constitution Avenue. It was the largest single gathering of IBEW members, a record that remains unbroken. The demonstration began at the Washington Monument, moved to the White House ellipse and ended with a peaceful march to Capitol Hill. Once there, dozens of labor leaders and politicians took to the stage to deliver impassioned speeches to the crowd. Included amongst them was IBEW President Charles Pillard, one of the headline speakers for the event. "We strongly object to members of Congress sponsoring legislation that will set back all the protective labor legislation that has been gained for workers over the past 50 years," Pillard said. "The brotherhood is committed to protecting the right for unions to be allowed to indulge in free collective bargaining, to earn fair wages, safety at the job site, a high standard of living, and security for the elderly in their retirement years."

In North American labor history, the significance of the "Solidarity Day" march cannot be underestimated. But the fight to protect those same basic labor rights continues to this day. With every new generation, an appreciation for those rights must be taught and celebrated, not just on Labor Day but every day of the year.

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IBEW members march at the head of the 1981 "Solidarity Day" parade in Washington to protest cuts to federal programs and labor protections, top. Below, a Toronto Labour Day parade held in the early 1900s is a tradition carried on today.