A hearty hurrah for Labour Day 

Summer's last long weekend stands on noble ground

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Labourers unite! This weekend we all get an extra day off work ­— yippee!­ — without chipping into our precious holiday bank.

But bittersweet as this last summer long weekend is, we're not just jamming in one last hurrah for the golden days of summer. We're also celebrating, well, labourers and their labour. And if that only conjures up sepia tone "olde tyme" images of Victorian sweatshops filled with tired, broken men and women, give your head a shake.

Sure, we say "workers" now, but we are all still pretty much labourers in our post-post-modern world, using our brain and sweat equity to make somebody somewhere more of a living than we make for ourselves.

So hats off to labourers — really, the labour union movement — who fought for Labour Day in the first place, and still fight for balance in the workplace. (You reckon otherwise? Just see all our unions disappear, including that of our beloved and beleaguered B.C. teachers, and see what kind of sad working conditions become the norm.)

In just about every country besides Canada and the U.S. that enjoys a Labour Day, it happens on a different day, often May 1. But here and in the States, the first Monday in September was designated as Labour Day. Whatever it's called and whenever it falls, Labour Day was meant to celebrate the advancements made by the labour movement worldwide. No. 1 on the list was securing the eight-hour workday.

International Workers' Day, also called Labour Day in some countries, originally marked the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, when workers threw a bomb at police, who in turn fired into striking workers. No one knows how many workers were killed at Haymarket as they supported America's new eight-hour workday, which had been proclaimed May 1 that year.

Today, we can barely picture what would drive people to strike, let alone lay down their lives in support of an eight-hour workday. But even with the shorter workday, a seven-day workweek was the norm for years. A workweek of six days only became common in North America after World War I. And in that sepia-toned Victorian England, a workweek meant 70 hours, or more than 80 if you were a shopkeeper.

Here in Canada, our Labour Day grew out of a strike in Toronto in 1872 by the Typographical Union, who were advocating for a 58-hour workweek. Imagine — a workweek about 50 per cent longer than the one we have today, and they wanted it! And here we are, feeling kind of bummed about summer holidays' end and putting in 40 solid hours.

Families where parents, whether dual or single, have to work fulltime, in addition to looking after the kids and everything else life tosses our way, have double my sympathy, because really I think we have it all bass ackwards.

It's fascinating to read in Margaret Visser's classic The Way We Are that your average hunter-gather in Peruvian rainforests puts in three to four hours of labour each day to sustain themselves. In fourth-century Rome, workers were given 175 days off each year, so about half the entire year was labour-free!

In France, employers have to give workers no less than six weeks of paid vacation time each year, in addition to 11 public holidays, although only one public holiday day is paid leave — May Day. No doubt workers fought hard for that — Vive la révolution!

Anybody want to come over to my place to plan the general strike? We should, because we Canucks have it pretty bad in terms of time off.

While the number of minimum paid holidays varies from province to province, a survey done by the Canadian Labour Congress, bless their collective heart, proved that out of 21 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations, Canadians definitely get the short end of the vacation stick. On average, we enjoy only 10 statutory holidays and 10 paid vacation days each year.

No wonder we're all out looking for "convenience" foods to make the grind less grinding, the kitchen side of labour less labour-intensive.

Some of us, if we can afford it, simply eat out a lot. There's "grab and go" from fast food outlets, usually pretty disappointing and even less healthy. Frozen food, deli food, prepared processed food, you name it — it's all getting to be more and more popular in our busy lives, and if you don't believe it, just check out the ever-increasing size of the prepared food section of your favourite grocery store.

Thanks to the good research done by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) trade union (about 250,000 strong across Canada), we know that in 2013, Canadian households spent an average of about $7,700 a year on food. The survey showed that spending comes in many forms, but ready-made meals are taking up more and more of the average household's food budget.

Lots of factors come in to play but more than half of those surveyed by the UFCW reported they usually spent 15 minutes or less preparing dinner for themselves and their families because of time pressure. A hectic work and commuting schedule was at the root of it for 68 per cent of respondents.

Even more interesting: 90 minutes a day was spent by 15- to 24-year-olds on eating out in restaurants. That climbed to 105 minutes for 65- to 74-year-olds. And 25 percent of parents said they were too busy to make breakfast for their kids.

That's why Jamie Oliver and I are still here, years later, thumping away about the best meals you can make in 15, okay, I'll stretch it to 20 minutes, out of good, fresh, tasty whole food. And, I'll add, the more organic and more local, the better. As for the audience we have in mind, it's up-and-comers who maybe didn't see a lot of good, quick meals being made from scratch at home, even when you have to work full time.

So, it's back to routine soon, and even though our days should be easier and more leisurely with all the hard-fought changes the labour movement has secured for all of us, whether we're union members or not, there's still a long way to go.

Keep that in mind this Labour Day weekend, as we all give summer one last collective hurrah.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who has always wanted to start a revolution.

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