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.
On 1st 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.
The following day August Spies, who was editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, published a leaflet in English and German entitled: Revenge! Workingmen to Arms!. It included the passage: “They killed the poor wretches because they, like you, had the courage to disobey the supreme will of your bosses. They killed them to show you ‘Free American Citizens’ that you must be satisfied with whatever your bosses condescend to allow you, or you will get killed. If you are men, if you are the sons of your grand sires, who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms we call you, to arms.” Spies also published a second leaflet calling for a mass protest at Haymarket Square that evening.
On 4th 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.
The 1912 Monument to the Haymarket Martyrs.
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.”
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.
2012: Joe Hockey delivers his London speech: ‘The End of the Age of Entitlement’. It sounds an early warning of what’s to come.
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.