It is, in fact, the only day of the year when employees are legally obliged to be given leave, save professions that cannot be interrupted due to their nature (such as workers in hospitals and public transport).
Demonstrations and marches are a Labour Day tradition in France, where trade unions organize parades in major cities to defend workers’ rights.
It is also customary to offer a lily of the valley to friends or family on this day . This custom dates back to 1561, where king Charles IX, aged 10, waiting for his accession to the throne, gave a lily of the valley to all ladies present.
Today, the fiscal administration exempts individuals and workers’ organizations from any tax or administrative duties related to the sales of lilies of the valley, provided they are gathered from the wild, and not bought to be resold.
Leonard Worsell (left) and John ‘Jac’ John: two of the Llanelli strike casualties. Photograph: Public domain.
A rifle shot rings out. The men by the garden wall stand their ground. “It’s OK,” one shouts out. “It’s only a blank!” There is laughter. “It’s all right – they’ve only got blank cartridges,” someone else yells.
Suddenly a live round smashes into the throat of a man sitting on the wall, knocking him backwards onto the grass. Everybody runs.
Three men are down, bleeding badly. Two of them are carried into a house and laid out on a table, where they die.
On the nearby railway line, the major in charge of the detachment of soldiers orders his men to withdraw.
These events did not take place in Iraq, Afghanistan or some other beleaguered war zone.
They happened nearly a 100 years ago in Llanelli, Wales. The tinplate-producing town was hit hard by deindustrialisation, and thus became the place where the first ever national railway strike happened.
For two days and nights, pitched battles raged between pickets and troops for the line’s control through the town.
In a bungled intervention, the major in charge ordered his men to fire on the strikers. As news of the deaths spread, soldiers tried to restore order with fixed bayonets.
Trucks of the railway company were attacked and set on fire. Detonators exploded, killing a further four townspeople.
Police guarding the railway wagons.
John “Jac” John was 21 when he was killed. A mill worker at the Morewood Tinplate Works, he was a promising rugby player for the Oriental Stars. He was, according to a local rugby reporter, “one of the most popular young men in the town”.
A photograph shows a youth with expressive features and dark hair, parted in the middle and rather stylish looking. Scores of relatively well-paid tinplate workers like himself had come out on the streets in solidarity with the poorer rail workers.
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.
Tom Mann (1856-1941) was one of the leading figures in the history of the British Labour movement. After completing an engineering apprenticeship in the Midlands he moved to London.
Unable to find work in his trade, Mann did a variety of menial jobs before being employed in an engineering shop in 1879. Mann’s foreman, Sam Mainwaring, was a socialist and introduced him to the ideas of William Morris and other reformers.
In 1881 Mann joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and soon afterwards participated in his first strike.
He also became a member of the Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).
A leading advocate of the eight-hour day, Mann also played a key role during the London Dock Strike of 1889. Ben Tillett asked Mann to manage the distribution of relief tickets to his union members.
Tillett’s union was demanding four hours continuous work at a time and a minimum rate of sixpence (2.5p) an hour.
During the dispute Mann emerged with Tillett and John Burns as one of the three main leaders of the strike.