Amherst hosted its first Labour Day celebration in more than 20 years on Monday. It was organized by Mike Clark with the support of Amherst and public and private sector unions.
AMHERST – When Mike Clark began preparing for Monday’s Labour Day celebration in downtown Amherst, he was surprised just how many people didn’t know the day’s significance.
“Everyone knew it was a holiday, but they didn’t know what Labour Day is all about,” Clark said while watching activities in Victoria Square. “You wouldn’t believe how many people I spoke to didn’t know what Labour Day is.”
When he sent out fliers letting people know about the day, Clark said many thought it was just for union members. He has worked hard to let people know that it’s a community celebration.
Deputy Mayor Lisa Emery said the celebration has been an excellent addition to the Amherst 125 celebrations. Unions, she said, played a prominent role in the town’s history dating back to the general strike across Canada in May 1919.
“In Amherst, striking workers closed the eight largest industries and mechanics and government workers joined the three-day strike,” Emery said. “The Amherst Federation of Labour advanced their demands for improved wages and working conditions and a shorter work day. At first, employers refused to work with the striking employees but after weeks of often contentious negotiations the strikers did get what they were after.”
What the unions brought to workers at Amherst’s biggest industries at the time helped lay the groundwork for what they have today, she added.
Clark said things started slowly on Monday, but picked up once the musical entertainment began. There was also a bouncy castle for the kids, as well as face painting, a fundraising barbecue put on by members of the Community Credit Union and cotton candy from J.D.C. Fireworks.
“The music seemed to draw people in,” said Clark, who’s a member of the United Steelworkers of Amercia at IMP. “I’ve seen from the very young to the very old here and that’s great to see.”
Clark said he’d often said Amherst needed a Labour Day celebration, but his was his four-year-old daughter who said he should organize one. The passing of his father got him thinking that life’s too short to wait until the next year or the year after.
“You’re only young once and you’re only in your prime for a short time so I took the bull by the horns and got it organized,” Clark said, adding the Town of Amherst was a huge help along with the many of the public and private sector unions in the town.
Now that he’s seen the success of the inaugural event, he’s excited about planning for next year’s Labour Day celebration.
“There was no maybe, everyone I asked jumped at the chance to help,” he said. “All the unions were so helpful too, from the private to the public sector unions, from the nurses to the factory workers. Everyone pitched in. It was sort of cool to see just how many unionized people there are in the community.”
Coun. Terry Rhindress, a former chairman of the Cumberland District Labour Council, said it has been more than 20 years since a similar Labour Day celebration was held. He credited Clark for showing the initiative to organize the event.
“It’s good to see it come back,” Rhindress said. “People don’t understand what labour does for them. The things we enjoy today on the job, like pensions and drug plans, weren’t always there. We achieved those things by organizing and fighting for workers’ rights. A lot of that stuff we take for granted now, but it didn’t come easy.”