Photo: May Day March held in Adelaide, early 1970s.
1791: Australia had its first strike when Sydney convicts demand daily rations instead of weekly rations.
1829: Printing Compositors and Carpenters win the right to be paid with real money, instead of rum.
1854: The Eureka Stockade in Ballarat is stormed by police and troops (30 miners and five troopers are killed). The miners are found not guilty of rebellion.
1855: August 18. Sydney stonemasons win 8-hour day, (6-day week).
1856: Australian workers in Australia decide to organise a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment in support of the Eight Hour Day. The day had such strong support that it is decided to repeat the Celebration every year.
1859: The first Trades Hall is opened in Melbourne.
1881: New South Wales recognises Trade Union Rights.
1881: Tailoresses in Melbourne form Australia’s first female trade union to fight cuts to their piecework rates.
1882: The Adelaide Typographical Society sets up a workers’ political party with other trade unions.
1886: The Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, USA, is seen as the catalyst for International Workers Day. Outrage as four unionists are executed triggering worldwide action
1891: In Barcaldine, Queensland, shearers go on strike. On 1st May, a parade of over 1300 unionists celebrate May Day. Their strike leads to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.
1891: Adelaide has its first May Day March, after a long period of unrest on the Port Adelaide Docks.
1892: Broken Hill miners strike over wage cuts and use of scab labour.
1904: The Conciliation and Arbitration Act is passed and the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission is established.
1907: Justice Higgins hands down the ‘Harvester Judgment’ which establishes the principle of the ‘basic wage’.
1916: The WW1 Conscription Referendum is narrowly defeated after the use of the Unlawful Associations Act fails to stop protests. A Second Referendum in 1917 is soundly defeated.
1928: Savage cuts to the wages and conditions of wharfies, coal miners and timber workers bring on a period of long strikes.
1929: Wall Street stock market crashes heralding start of The Great Depression.
1934: Peace activist and anti-Nazi Egon Kisch beats deportation laws and addresses anti-war rally in Sydney.
1936: Spanish Civil War erupts. Seventy Australians enlist in the Free International Brigades.
1938: Wharfies refuse Attorney-General Menzies’ order to load pig-iron for Japan.
1939: Menzies becomes Prime Minister, declares war on Germany.
1941: Nazi Germany invades Russia. Menzies resigns: Curtin becomes Prime Minister
1943: ‘Sheepskins for Russia’ Appeal gets huge support from workers.
1951: Australian voters reject the Commonwealth Referendum to outlaw the Communist Party.
1969: Half a million workers strike in support of Tramways Union Secretary Clarrie O’Shea’s release from Gaol.
1998: Patrick Stevedores and the Howard Government use masked scab labor, trained in Dubai, to launch an attack on the wages and conditions of Maritime Union workers.
2007: Australian voters get behind a massive ‘Your Rights at Work’ Campaign, that rejects Howard’s Workchoices legislation and elects a Labor government.
2008: Ark Tribe refuses to attend a conference of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) held to determine the legality of CFMEU members attending a safety meeting at the Flinders University Construction site.
2010: Julia Gillard becomes Australia’s first woman Prime Minister.
2010: Ark Tribe cleared of all charges in November.
2013: Federal election on 7 September results in an Abbott-led government, Hockey’s first budget sees Abbott’s popularity tumble.
2014: Release of the imprisoned Cuban Five after 17 years of struggle paves the way for improved US-Cuba relations.
2015: Government cuts see the spectre of rising unemployment.
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.
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.
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.
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.