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Eight-hour Day campaign may resonate today

The idea that employers might be robbed of the power to set work hours for their employees at almost any level they chose scandalised the English-speaking world in the 1800s. Bosses declared the idea was preposterous. It would make businesses unprofitable, drive some to the wall, hurt the poor and upset the natural order of things.

Nevertheless, despite those arguments and despite sometimes ferocious punishments for workers found guilty of working together to press for better pay and conditions, some people kept arguing that eight hours was a fair working day. The idea was that, in a 24-hour day, you should have eight hours to sleep, eight hours to work and eight hours for yourself.

People had been raising the idea around the world for a long time, but the period of the Industrial Revolution in the UK gradually increased the pressure, since so many people were herded into privately owned factories where many worked from 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week for pay that was often low. Women and children often worked longer hours, but were paid much less than men.

But while the impetus was great, the movement for an eight-hour day gained traction very slowly, pushing against the massive combined power of employers and their near-constant allies in government. Australia played an important role in the eventual success of the movement, thanks to decades of determined effort by generations of workers and unionists. Although disadvantaged by its beginnings as a prison workhouse where convict labourers had practically no rights at all, Australia’s growing colonies brought shortages of skilled labour that enabled some groups of workers to bargain effectively with would-be employers. The push for the eight-hour day began in earnest in the 1850s with successful strikes by the key stonemasons’ union in Melbourne and Sydney. The Melbourne strike began on April 21, 1856, when stonemasons working on the old quadrangle building downed tools and marched on Parliament. Their successful strike – which culminated in reduced working hours but no loss of pay – was celebrated by a holiday and well-attended festive procession on May 12 of that year.

Stonemasons’ strike

The previous year in Sydney, according to the book, I Remember, by former NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang, the stonemasons won a similar victory. There were 307 stonemasons working in Sydney at the time, and 164 of them had become members of the new Operative Stonemasons’ Society. Their working day was typically from 6am to 6pm, with two one-hour breaks for meals.

To quote historian Rowan Cahill: “On 18 August 1855 the Stonemasons Society in Sydney issued an ultimatum to employers that in six months time, masons would only work an eight-hour day. However men working on the Holy Trinity Church in Argyle Cut, and on the Mariners‚ Church (an evangelical mission to seafarers, now an art gallery and cafĂ©) in Lower George Street (98-100 George Street), could not contain their enthusiasm and decided not to wait. They pre-emptively went on strike, won the eight-hour day, and celebrated with a victory dinner on 1 October 1855. In February 1856 the August (1855) ultimatum expired and six months to the day, Sydney stonemasons generally went after a reduction of hours on the eight-hour model. Their demand was opposed by employers, even though the masons made it clear they were prepared to take a reduction in wages proportionate to the reduced hours. The main opposition came from the builders engaged on construction of Tooths Brewery on Parramatta Road. Less than two weeks of strike action overcame that hindrance and the masons won in late February, early March, 1856”. The men, however, did sacrifice pay in return for the shorter hours.

As an important industrial city, Newcastle naturally had its own movement for an eight-hour day, beginning perhaps in the 1870s. Processions and sports festivals were part of the campaign, and many photographs exist of these, mostly dated in the early 1900s. This Newcastle Morning Herald account of the 1907 procession gives a sense of the event, a long and well-attended procession that culminated in a sports festival at the Broadmeadow Showground.

Eight-hour Day procession in Newcastle, NSW, October 16, 1905. Photo by William Fraser.
Eight-Hour Day procession in Newcastle, NSW, October 29, 1906. Photo by Ralph Snowball.
Eight-hour Day procession, Newcastle, NSW, 1907.
Display float for the Eight-hour Day procession in Newcastle, NSW, 1908.

In I Remember, Jack Lang has much to say about the battle:

Progress towards the general adoption of the eight hour principle was very slow. The aristocrats of industry were the first to gain the objective.

The first eight hour day festival was held in 1871. It was organised by the stonemasons’, bricklayers’, labourers’ and carpenters’ unions. They were about the only unions who could at that time celebrate such a day. It became the annual Labour Day holiday. One of its brightest features was the procession through the city streets. My own first recollections of the big day are of the fight being waged in the early 90s for a universal 8 hour day.

The Labor Party had not yet become powerful enough to think in terms of forming a government of its own. But it had just about formed a third party. It held the balance of power. It bargained with the free traders and the protectionists.

The eight hour day was high on Labor’s platform. In the shops hours were unlimited. The shop assistant would work anything up to 100 hours a week. Shops down the Haymarket area would keep open on Saturday nights until midnight. The Petticoat Lane of Sydney was in Campbell St where the Tivoli now stands. Across the street on the area now occupied by the Capitol Theatre was the Hippodrome with the circus, merry-go-round, electricity and all the sideshows. Butchers and barbers would open their stalls on Sunday morning before church hours and workers were expected to be on hand whenever customers were about. There were no fixed payments for overtime, female labour could be had for as little as 30 shillings for a week of 66 hours. Children were lucky to get half a crown a week, while Sydney had its sweatshops where seamstresses worked from dawn till late at night for a mere pittance. A dressmaker who took her work home and had her family helping her thought herself lucky to make 15 shillings a week on piece work. There were no industrial inspectors.

Legislation for an 8 hour day was on the platform approved by the first Labor Conference in 1891. A bill was introduced in the Legislative Assembly and passed. But it was thrown out by the Legislative Council.

But it was the eight hour day procession that provided the real excitement. All Sydney turned out for the display. It was the day when tradesmen demonstrated their craft skill. They were proud to exhibit their prowess. The unions employed artists to design banners. Large firms contributed lorries drawn by show horses. Hairdressers worked in their chairs along the route with complete barbers’ salons on wheels with the customers in billows of white foam. Tobacco workers made cigarettes. Railwaymen had working models. Stonemasons chipped away at blocks of masonry. Bullock wagons drew huge logs of wood while timber workers exhibited their muscles. Blacksmiths even worked hard shoeing ponies on a float.

A Labor Day procession in Sydney in the 1930s.

There were perambulators made by wicker workers, huge kegs of beer, hats of every hue and clothing trade workers starting off with Adam and Eve. Theatrical employees showed off the costumes of current productions and even the stars were known to turn out. There were clowns, jugglers and tumblers and prancing police horses as well as firemen in their brass helmets.

Everyone wanted to join the march

Real highlights were the free samples. Bakers threw out hot bread rolls and buns just off the ovens. Grocers had all kinds of free trade samples. There were nick-nacks of every conceivable shape and form. There were even free sweets for the children. Then of course there were the brass bands. In the early days everyone wanted to join in the march. The politicians couldn’t afford to be out. Rain or shine they had to make their appearance. The original idea was that the procession would lead everyone to the grounds where the sports carnival was being held.

A Labor Day procession in Sydney in the 1930s.

8 hour day was not a statutory public holiday. It had to be proclaimed each year on the application of the eight hour committee.

In 1916 an eight hours bill passed. This was virtually a 48 hour work week and was interpreted as such. The court was given authority to regulate the hours of work and provide a 48 hour working week.

In 1925 my government had its chance to establish a 44 hour week. I decided that instead of beating about the bush by passing the buck to the arbitration court the question of hours was entirely a matter for the government. We thereupon introduced the 44 hour week by act of parliament. We had all the old arguments used against us. We were told we would bankrupt the state. There were predictions that industries would move to Victoria. We were told that we would destroy production. But once Parliament enacted the 44 hour act no government was prepared to repeal it. The eight hour day principle was at last firmly established. Later the McGirr government only had to make a very simple alteration by changing one word to bring in the 40 hour week.

In January 1948, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court approved a 40-hour, five day working week for all Australians. The eight-hour principle endured for much of the latter half of the 20th Century before employers and governments began to seriously wind it back again through well-funded campaigns against unions and legislated workplace “reforms”.

Eight-hour Day processions are no more. They faded away sometime in the 1940s and 1950s, having lost much of their meaning for newer generations and becoming far less attractive entertainments than others now on offer. But to give the last word to Jack Lang: “Labor’s Day in this city [Sydney] has always been the first Monday in October. Down the years it was known as 8-Hour Day. It was the day when Labor paid tribute to its founders and celebrated the victory gained in a great historical struggle”.

The story of the fight for the eight-hour day may seem resonant today, particularly for young people in the so-called “gig economy”, working from contract to contract with pay rates stagnant and the cost of living rising at the same time that corporate profits are soaring. One wonders what the unionists of years gone by would say if they could see the world of work experienced by some of their great-great-grandchildren.


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