Eight-hour day march circa 1900, outside Parliament House in Spring Street, Melbourne.
The Australian gold rushes attracted many skilled tradesmen to Australia. Some of them had been active in the chartist movement, and subsequently became prominent in the campaign for better working conditions in the Australian colonies.
Eight-hour day banner, Melbourne, 1856
The Stonemasons’ Society in Sydney issued an ultimatum to employers on 18 August 1855 saying that after six months masons would work only an eight-hour day.
Due to the rapid increase in population caused by the gold rushes, many buildings were being constructed, so skilled labour was scarce.
Stonemasons working on the Holy Trinity Church and the Mariners’ Church (an evangelical mission to seafarers), decided not to wait and pre-emptively went on strike, thus winning the eight-hour day.
They celebrated with a victory dinner on 1 October 1855 which to this day is celebrated as a Labour Day holiday in the state of New South Wales. When the six-month ultimatum expired in February 1856, stonemasons generally agitated for a reduction of hours.
Although opposed by employers, a two-week strike on the construction of Tooth’s Brewery on Parramatta Road proved effective, and stonemasons won an eight-hour day by early March 1856, but with a reduction in wages to match.
Agitation was also occurring in Melbourne where the craft unions were more militant. Stonemasons working on Melbourne University organized to down tools on 21 April 1856 and march to Parliament House with other members of the building trade.
The movement in Melbourne was led by veteran chartists and mason James Stephens, T.W. Vine and James Galloway. The government agreed that workers employed on public works should enjoy an eight-hour day with no loss of pay and Stonemasons celebrated with a holiday and procession on Monday 12 May 1856, when about 700 people marched with 19 trades involved.
By 1858 the eight-hour day was firmly established in the building industry.
From 1879 the eight-hour day was a public holiday in Victoria. The initial success in Melbourne led to the decision to organize a movement, to actively spread the eight-hour idea, and secure the condition generally.
In 1903 veteran socialist Tom Mann spoke to a crowd of a thousand people at the unveiling of the Eight Hour Day monument, funded by public subscription, on the south side of Parliament House.
Eight-hour day procession by miners in Wyalong, New South Wales – late 1890s
It took further campaigning and struggles by trade unions to extend the reduction in hours to all workers in Australia.
In 1916 the Victoria Eight Hours Act was passed granting the eight-hour day to all workers in the state. The eight-hour day was not achieved nationally until the 1920s.
The Commonwealth Arbitration Court gave approval of the 40-hour five-day working week nationally beginning on 1 January 1948.
The achievement of the eight-hour day has been described by historian Rowan Cahill as “one of the great successes of the Australian working class during the nineteenth century, demonstrating to Australian workers that it was possible to successfully organize, mobilize, agitate, and exercise significant control over working conditions and quality of life.
The Australian trade union movement grew out of eight-hour campaigning and the movement that developed to promote the principle.”
The intertwined numbers 888 soon adorned the fronts of many union buildings around Australia.
The Eight Hour March, which began on April 21, 1856, continued each year until 1951 in Melbourne, when the conservative Victorian Trades Hall Council decided to forgo the tradition for the Moomba festival on the Labour Day weekend.
In capital cities and towns across Australia, Eight Hour day marches became a regular social event each year, with early marches often restricted to those workers who had won an eight-hour day.