Why May Day Matters for Newfoundland and Labrador

May Day in Newfoundland and Labrador presents an opportunity not only to remember our struggle for emancipation, but to continue and expand it.

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In Newfoundland and Labrador, memory is a fraught thing. The many painful crises of the past provide a potent incentive to move on, to forget the old conflicts in our history and have a go at a steady life in the present. 

To forget class struggle, however, is to forget our history altogether. As a colony, a country, and a province, Newfoundland and Labrador has always been a center of intense labour exploitation, and working class resistance. 

Today, the struggle continues in new and difficult forms. The merchants remain, and crisis looms.

May Day, or International Workers’ Day (IWD), is an opportunity to commemorate this ongoing class struggle, and to inscribe it into memory. Yet, the first of May is not widely observed in Newfoundland and Labrador. Instead, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians join the rest of Canada in celebrating Labour Day weekend at the end of summer. 

For nearly a century, workers in Grand Falls-Windsor have paid tribute to the gains of organized labor by marking the first Monday of September with three full days of festivities, capped off with a parade. Similarly, organized by the major labour unions, an annual Labour Day event in St. John’s consists of family friendly fun with a side of labour activism. However, for many Labour Day is a largely apolitical experience, understood merely as a much-needed day off work. As a result, the radical, anti-capitalist history of the international working-class movement is obscured, Newfoundland and Labrador’s role in this movement rendered insignificant. 

This obfuscation is a fog that benefits only the merchants in their gated hilltop homes, concealing from Newfoundlanders and Labradorians the fact that merchant interests are in direct conflict with our own. 

So let’s clear the air.

The History of May Day

When Chicago’s Haymarket Square burst into violence on May 4, 1886, the movement for an eight-hour workday was already 30 years old. 

It began in Australia, when Melbourne stonemasons and builders organized a work stoppage and were the first in the world to achieve an eight-hour day with no loss in pay. The International Workingmen’s Association proposed in their 1866 Congress a workday legally capped at eight hours, with Karl Marx arguing in 1867 that capitalist production extends the workday in order to produce the premature exhaustion and death of human labour power itself.

Then, in March 1872, after pleading fruitlessly with employers for a nine-hour day, the Toronto Printers’ Union went on strike. Spurred on by the financial support of the Montreal Nine-Hour League, a crowd of 10,000-strong marched on Queen’s Park demanding their right to a shorter work day. 

When bosses hired replacements and invoked old laws barring labour unions, Prime Minister John McDonald seized the political opportunity by introducing the Trades Unions Act. Its passage would not only grant the printers a nine-hour day but would also deal a blow to his rival George Brown who owned the Toronto Globe as well as weaken the ties of solidarity between the Toronto union and the Nine-Hour League. 

Yet the movement for an eight hour working day continued to spread. 

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, industrial workers mounted strikes in multiple US cities against brutal and unsafe working conditions, with American labour unions declaring May 1, 1886, a day of universal work stoppage.

As the work stoppage mounted into days of coordinated strikes that saw thousands across the United States rally peacefully for the eight-hour workday, Chicago police marched on the crowd at Haymarket. When a bomb was thrown towards the police lines by an unknown perpetrator, and police opened fire, it resulted in at least 100 casualties, including at least four workers and seven police officers killed. Three years later, over 400 delegates at the International Workers’ Congress decided May 1st would hence be celebrated as May Day, an occasion to “demonstrate energetically for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”

After centuries of exploitative credit practices and crushing poverty, workers in Newfoundland and Labrador were primed and ready to join the growing, global movement of organized labour.

Worker Power in Newfoundland and Labrador

Against the efforts of the mercantile elite and the Catholic Church, the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) was formed in 1908, drawing inspiration from British trade-unionists and the Labour Party. As S.J.R. Noel writes in Politics in Newfoundland, by 1911, the FPU boasted more than 12,000 dues-paying members. Less than a decade later Port Union was established, the only union-built town in North America.

Later, with the province in the grips of the Great Depression, unemployed workers again proved their political power by forcing NL Prime Minister Richard Squires to flee the Colonial Building at the hands of 10,000 protestors. The subsequent, unelected Commission of Government fared little better. In 1935, Pierce Power led his Unemployed Committee in a 1,000-strong protest at Government House demanding better government assistance for the poor and unemployed. Once again, the protests were put down by police. But, as Sean Cadigan notes in Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, that didn’t stop crowds of working poor from continuing to protest paltry government assistance and unsafe working conditions throughout the rest of the 1930s. 

One of the most significant demonstrations of collective worker power in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history was the 1958-59 logger strike. Premier Joseph Smallwood decided to take over the labour dispute between the members of the International Woodworkers of America and their employer the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company (AND), and legislated the dissemination of the strike action. This led to escalated organizing efforts by the loggers and increased tensions, eventually exploding into the infamous Badger Riot. In the aftermath of the tragic violence, the AND was forced to agree to the original demands of the loggers for better wages and working conditions, in the process furthering worker rights not only for the loggers but for workers all across the province.

Yet despite the hard-fought achievements of the international workers’ movement, the tide was eventually turned against organized labour and May Day after the Second World War.

In an effort to overshadow IWD and the socialist origins of organized labour gains, US President Eisenhower declared in 1958 that May 1 would henceforth be known as “Law Day.” In a bitter irony, it would commemorate not international workers and their hard-won labour rights, but rather the rule of law and the “Americanization” of immigrant workers. Since then, the less overtly political Labour Day in Canada and the US has become progressively associated more with barbecues, picnics and vacation than with the Haymarket Affair, organized labour unions or the International Workers’ Congress. 

On the other hand, IWD’s commemoration of the struggles against governments, police, merchants, bosses and strike-breakers, and celebration of the massive gains of organized labour in establishing the 40-hour work week, child labour laws, public education, paid vacation and sick leave, has largely faded from public view.  

The Future of May Day

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the power of the FPU was severely diminished by 1960, collapsing entirely by 1977. And while Port Union still stands as a monument to the FPU, now as a National Historical Site of Canada, it continues to exist as the only town established by a union rather than the first among many (and a precedent to be followed).

Although Newfoundland and Labrador still has the highest rate of unionized workers in all of Canada, mercantile influence, reactionary governments, and the collapse of the cod fishery has steadily eaten away at the collective power of organized labour unions. Ballooning provincial debt produced by the schemes of the merchant and investor class is still wielded as a sword to the neck of workers forcing them to accept austerity and individualize their demands while bosses and benefactors loot and line their pockets. 

But we must also remember how Newfoundanders and Labradorians have banded together in recent times of struggle and fought for a better future. 

We need only recall the beer strike of 1985 when unionized employees shut down multiple breweries to protect workers’ job security, in turn exposing corporate collusion in the beer business. Or the heated public sector strike against the Williams government in 2004 over wage increases. Or the huge marches in 2016 against the Ball government’s provincial budget characterized by brutal and unjust austerity programs.

What we need to build on now are the roots of our international struggle as workers. And there are reasons to be hopeful. 

Alongside the enormous efforts of organized labour, local progressive organizations like the Social Justice Co-op of Newfoundland and Labrador, the People’s Recovery Coalition, Anti-Poverty NL, the Anti-Racism Coalition, and Fifteen and Fairness NL have joined the ongoing campaign against austerity politics and the struggle for a living minimum wage. Indigenous activists like the Labrador Land Protectors lead the way in fighting back against racist settler colonialism, resisting land grabs, and demanding climate justice. 

May Day thus presents an opportunity not only to remember our struggle, but to continue and expand it—to develop working-class power capable of challenging both the power of the merchant class at home, and the wider capitalist class abroad. 

This year, and every year, we ought to fight for May Day. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

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