Skip to main content Skip to local navigation
Home » COVID-19 and the World of Work » COVID-19 and the World of Work Blog » Labour Day, the Pandemic, and Canada

Labour Day, the Pandemic, and Canada

September 2, 2021
By Christina Love (Undergraduate Student, Indigenous Studies and French)

Christina Love is a contributor to the GLRC’s interview series entitled Workers’ Stories in the COVID-19 Era. Her post below features findings and quotes from those interviews.

TW: Mention of suicide in the worker quotes (Karl).


In 1894, over 50 labour organizations from across the country petitioned parliamentarians to create a federal workers’ holiday [1]. Since then, Labour Day has been a Canadian statutory holiday celebrated the first Monday in September. Originally a holiday that platformed speeches, parades, picnics, and worker solidarity, Labour Day has increasingly changed in its nature since the 1940s. Now, among the mainstream, Labour Day is more of a family-centred holiday that is largely treated as an additional weekend day.

The day was borne of the working struggle and celebration of its victories. Crucial to this struggle was the successful 1872 printers’ strike in Toronto which instigated the Trade Union Act, decriminalizing unions [2]. The now-legal unions could begin to do what unions do – they began to organize, demanding better wages, fair treatment, and lower working hours. The industrial standard from before the Act was a 12-hour workday and a 6-day workweek [3]. Since unions have come onto the scene this has significantly shifted, and the working standard for most jobs now is an 8-hour workday and 5-day workweek.

Different workers

The current de-politization and sanitization of Labour Day is reflected in the policy decisions of our leaders and the increasing restrictions on worker organizing and the power that worker organizations can hold.


Neoliberalism has meant a workforce that is increasingly precarious and disenfranchised. Add on a pandemic and you have rampant injustice at its extremes.

In terms of unions, this has manifested itself in combative legislation that seeks to undermine the power of the collective and to limit the scope of what they can do. Of special note is back-to-work legislation. Basically, governments have steadily eroded workers’ legal abilities to strike by enacting legislation that can force them back to work. Particularly, for example, CUPE 3903 members at York University since 2018 would remember the Ford government forcing an end to that year’s historic strike, effectively infringing on workers’ bargaining power [4]. Most recently at the federal level, Bill C-29 was tabled in the House of Commons on April 28, 2021, forcing striking Port of Montreal workers back to work [5]. If workers cannot strike, their leverage effectively vanishes, allowing employers to ignore worker demands.

In response to the public health crisis of the pandemic, the Ontario government passed Bill 195, which reduces the legal power of the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) and other unions, with no designated future end [6]. For all unionized workers, this bill overrides collective agreement provisions, and interferes with collective bargaining and the grievance process. For nurses specifically, this bill notably empowers employers to redeploy nurses to units in which they’re not qualified to work, and ignore their objections.

Precarity is at an all-time high, particularly among young workers. Experiencing a 6-percentage point increase in unemployment from 2019-2020 is just the tip of the iceberg for young people [7]. The pandemic has exacerbated an increasing trend that has been steadily growing since the 80s; 78.95% of young people in 1989 had fulltime, permanent jobs [8]. In 2019, this fell to 70.15% of young people [9]. People are still working, mind you, but it is getting harder and harder to find fulltime, permanent, positions.

This is a dual issue reflected in legislation that makes employers responsible for greater expenses for fulltime employees, disincentivizing the voluntary hiring of fulltime staff, and a simultaneous desperation for work among the people due to a lacking social safety net. Young workers put up with terrible conditions, low pay, and unreliable work because they have to. We don’t have free post-secondary education, we don’t have a Universal Basic Income, and there are huge housing and affordability crises in huge urban population centres like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. People are taking what they can get because they have no choice.

It is galling that we celebrate a holiday every September that was intended to uplift and promote solidarity with workers, yet at the same moment, the actions of governments and businesses undermine the very goals and premise upon which Labour Day was founded. How long before unions are so legislated that they’re effectively recriminalized?

The Workers’ Voices

The people who have faced, and are facing, the impacts of these policies and these social, economic, and political trends are the workers. This begs the question: What are the workers saying? We interviewed frontline and essential workers throughout the summer as part of our Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era dialogue series about their experiences of work and labour in Canada and the world, specifically concerning the changing nature of labour as affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below, we have pulled a quote from each of our interviews to highlight the views of workers, spoken by the workers themselves.

I have never been worse abused by other people than I have been working in retail, this being wholly exacerbated by the pandemic. You begin to feel less than human, between the unreasonable demands of managers and the customers who treat you like scum.Emma, former Shoppers Drug Mart post office clerk and cashier

I think my anxiety is way higher than it's ever been in my life. I think I have to figure out my day, their day, entirely… But we need to make that all work, so that I can still work and keep a professional noise level and am able to work with my kids, and have them be able to have some sort of normality to their day. Felicity, educational assistant and parent

So, the pharmacist owned the branch where I worked, and she was very discriminatory; she favoured the people who worked at the pharmacy more than any of the other employees in the store. For example, she got all of her pharmacy staff vaccinated in early January, and the rest of the staff…she never even talked about getting them vaccinated or discussed anything with them. Lucy, former Shoppers Drug Mart cash supervisor

Even if I had perfect time-management, the workload has increased to the point where we need to be getting overtime or have more staff be hired. How can I manage twelve hours of genuine work in eight hours even if I'm perfect at prioritizing?... For me, there's no paid overtime but I’m putting in overtime every single day. Audre, Canadian medical researcher

It was just too hard. We had all these new ‘COVID’ changes in place to reduce labour costs, which severely limited our kitchen staff, let alone the adaptation to online ordering. With Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes, you get a “ding ding ding order request” and you have to accept it and prepare the order superhumanly fast, and the orders just keep coming in, like “ding ding ding ding,” fucking constantly. You’re constantly stressed, constantly behind, and with absolutely no help.  – Damian, GTA line cook

I was still working full-time and trying to find a job that didn't make me actively want to commit suicide. Near the end of my time at that second veterinary clinic, suicide was an option, it was a part of my brain, and it was a way out. But because I was working full-time, if I went to places like Durham Recruiter, they pretty much told me that they couldn’t help me because I was working, even though I was always one paycheque and $50 away from starving… - Karl, former vet assistant turned hot tub salesperson

With this pandemic, the approach to unions have changed. Before, workers were chased by unions and now workers are chasing unions for membership, knowing that unionization provides them with some security and socio-economic protection. Edward, Ghanian public utility sector worker

A big thing was that sometimes I’d have to call in sick for some shifts due to health issues, and while they didn’t fire me for being sick, I wasn’t given any sick pay at all, and I had to find someone to cover my shift. So that’s a major financial hit I took whenever I wasn’t feeling well enough to work. Angela, former Shoppers Drug Mart cashier

I wanted to honour my country and my traditions by continuing to work in a way my father and forefathers did, in a way that I thought would honour the land and the sea, but the pandemic showed me that I will be left behind by change, that my country will not protect me. I could barely afford to keep food in the mouths of my wife and children… The poor get poorer, the sick get sicker, the rich get richer.Joseph, traditional Maltese fisherman

I would say don't hedge your bets on whatever current employment you have, and always be ready at any given point to switch to a new form of employment. You as an individual are inconsequential to your employer. Attilio, laid-off Old Navy merchandiser

It’s a difficult situation to be told you have no choice of where you're going to be working or else you could lose your job. They don't outright say it, but you know it's in the background. You try to grieve something, but it doesn’t work. Ahed, Ontario nurse