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.
On t May, 1886 a strike was began throughout the United States in support a eight-hour day. Over the next few days over 340,000 men and women withdrew their labor.
Over a quarter of these strikers were from Chicago and the employers were so shocked by this show of unity that 45,000 workers in the city were immediately granted a shorter workday.
The campaign for the eight-hour day was organised by the International Working Men’s Association (the First International). On 3rd May, the IWPA in Chicago held a rally outside the McCormick Harvester Works, where 1,400 workers were on strike.
They were joined by 6,000 lumber-shovers, who had also withdrawn their labour. While August Spies, one of the leaders of the IWPA was making a speech, the police arrived and opened-fire on the crowd, killing four of the workers.
On 4 May, over 3,000 people turned up at the Haymarket meeting. Speeches were made by August Spies, Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden.
At 10 a.m. Captain John Bonfield and 180 policemen arrived on the scene. Bonfield was telling the crowd to “disperse immediately and peaceably” when someone threw a bomb into the police ranks from one of the alleys that led into the square.
It exploded killing eight men and wounding sixty-seven others. The police then immediately attacked the crowd. A number of people were killed (the exact number was never disclosed) and over 200 were badly injured.
Several people identified Rudolph Schnaubelt as the man who threw the bomb. He was arrested but was later released without charge. It was later claimed that Schnaubelt was an agent provocateur in the pay of the authorities. After the release of Schnaubelt, the police arrested Samuel Fielden, an Englishman, and six German immigrants, August Spies, Adolph Fisher, Louis Lingg, George Engel, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab.
The police also sought Albert Parsons, the leader of the International Working Peoples Association in Chicago, but he went into hiding and was able to avoid capture. However, on the morning of the trial, Parsons arrived in court to standby his comrades.
There were plenty of witnesses who were able to prove that none of the eight men threw the bomb.
The authorities therefore decided to charge them with conspiracy to commit murder.
The prosecution case was that these men had made speeches and written articles that had encouraged the unnamed man at the Haymarket to throw the bomb at the police.
The jury was chosen by a special bailiff instead of being selected at random. One of those picked was a relative of one of the police victims.
Julius Grinnell, the State’s Attorney, told the jury: “Convict these men make examples of them, hang them, and you save our institutions.”
Read on via Haymarket Bombing.
This 1886 engraving was the most widely reproduced image of the Haymarket affair. It inaccurately shows Fielden speaking, the bomb exploding, and the rioting beginning simultaneously.
The rally began peacefully under a light rain on the evening of 4 May, 1886.
August Spies spoke to the large crowd while standing in an open wagon on Des Plaines Street with a large number of on-duty police officers watching from nearby. According to witnesses, Spies began by saying the rally was not meant to incite violence.
Historian Paul Avrich records Spies as saying “there seems to prevail the opinion in some quarters that this meeting has been called for the purpose of inaugurating a riot, hence these warlike preparations on the part of so-called ‘law and order.’
However, let me tell you at the beginning that this meeting has not been called for any such purpose. The object of this meeting is to explain the general situation of the eight-hour movement and to throw light upon various incidents in connection with it.”
The crowd was so calm that Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., who had stopped by to watch, walked home early.
Samuel Fielden, the last speaker, was finishing his speech at about 10:30 A.M. when police ordered the rally to disperse and began marching in formation towards the speakers’ wagon.
A pipe bomb was thrown at the police line and exploded, killing policeman Mathias J. Degan. The police immediately opened fire. Some workers were armed, but accounts vary widely as to how many shot back.
The incident lasted less than five minutes. Several police officers, aside from Degan, appear to have been injured by the bomb, but most of the police casualties were caused by bullets, largely from friendly fire.
In his report on the incident, John Bonfield wrote he “gave the order to cease firing, fearing that some of our men, in the darkness might fire into each other.”
An anonymous police official told the Chicago Tribune “a very large number of the police were wounded by each other’s revolvers. …. It was every man for himself, and while some got two or three squares away, the rest emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other.”
About 60 officers were wounded in the incident along with an unknown number of civilians. In all, seven policemen and at least four workers were killed.
It is unclear how many civilians were wounded since many were afraid to seek medical attention, fearing arrest.
Police captain Michael Schaack wrote the number of wounded workers was “largely in excess of that on the side of the police.”
The Chicago Herald described a scene of “wild carnage” and estimated at least 50 dead or wounded civilians lay in the streets.
Photo: Tom and Annie Higdon in 1938.
The Burston Strike School was at the centre of the longest running strike in British history, between 1914 and 1939.
The strike began when the two teachers at the village’s Church of England school, Annie Higdon and her husband, Tom Higdon, were sacked after a dispute with the area’s school management committee.
What a lot of people don’t know is that the Higdons in order to keep the children warm and dry in winter had exceeded the school’s firewood allowance.
This had infuriated the local Anglican hierachy who were also suspicious of the Higdons because they were were Primitive Methodists.
The Primitive Methodists were active Christians who fought for the low paid farm workers and their families and helped them to form their labour Unions.
The icing on the cake though was when Tom Higdon ran a ticket of activists against the Church at the local Council elections.
After Tom and Annie Higdon were sacked, the schoolchildren, who were intensely loyal to the couple went on strike in their support.
The Higdons set up an alternative school which was attended by 66 of their 72 former pupils.
Beginning in a marquee on the village green, the school moved to a local carpenter’s premises and later to a purpose-built school financed by donations from the British labour movement.
The Burston Strike School carried on teaching local children until shortly after Tom’s death in 1939.
The strike is commemorated each year by the British Labour Movement.