On April 28th the labour movement marks the annual Day of Mourning, honouring workers who have been killed or injured at work or suffered from occupational disease. This day was initiated by the Canadian Labour Congress in 1985, as unions struggled against recalcitrant employers and politicians who refused, despite the cost in human lives, to challenge business conduct.
This date was originally chosen to mark April 28, 1914 when the first workers’ compensation act was won in Ontario. Unions have organized across the world to proclaim the date, and today it is recognized in more than 100 countries. There is nothing neutral about the Day of Mourning. We may be joined by political leaders at our events, but the date honours the legacy of decades of intense worker mobilization around workplace health and safety in the face of employer resistance. The Labour Council fought to win the first Factories Act in 1884 – bringing regulations and inspections into workplaces – as well as Workers Compensation in 1914.
The Hoggs Hollow tunnel disaster of 1960 sparked a massive uprising by the Italian immigrant community; construction leader Gerry Gallagher led a series of walkouts to protest unsafe conditions; Steelworkers went on strike to force a full inquiry into uranium mining at Elliot Lake; aircraft workers in Toronto and Malton walked off the job over the use of toxic chemicals in the workplace, and office workers warned of exposure to early video display terminals and repetitive strain injuries.
Health and safety has been a priority for Toronto’s labour movement throughout our 150-year history. Workers’ rights to challenge unhealthy conditions – or to have safety laws enforced – were only won through tough struggles and patient organizing. They were never granted through the benevolence of those with economic or political power. And as COVID rages on, and the gig economy creates new digital “fissured workplaces”, the need for new measures to empower workers is apparent.
Labour’s motto on April 28th draws from the resolve we have learned over many generations. We pledge to Mourn for the Dead, and to continue to Fight Like Hell for the Living!