Labour Day celebrates the battle for the eight-hour day

Tripple Eight symbol on top of Melbourne's Eight Hour Day Monument at the Corner of Russell and Victoria Streets
Contributed by Jim Hayes

Today is Labour Day in Victoria. For many it is a day off work. Its importance however, is much greater than this.

It represents the battle by organised labour to cut down what was a 14 hour day for most of those in the colony, to eight hours.

This often meant exhaustion, deteriorating health and a premature death and it is the reason why the shorter week became the priority for the young unions in the colony.

Annual processions were held where workers marched behind their respective union banners. This is Labour Day. The triple eight symbol became the standard. Eight hours work, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest.

On 21 April 1856 Stonemasons led by Cooper Bridges, walked stopped work and off building sites around Melbourne. They marched from the University of Melbourne to Parliament House. This action won  the first in the world  eight-hour day in the world. And it was achieved without any loss of pay.

Support from some of the employers,  prepared to forego working hours, in return for support in achieving protection from imports, undoubtedly contributed to the victory. Fewer hours and a healthier workforce soon paid a dividend in the form of higher productivity and there is no doubt that this contributed to Victoria becoming the power house, of what eventually became the Australian nation.

Further campaigns brought the eight-hour day to other industries and in 1916, Victoria’s Eight Hours Act made it universal across the state. It took the rest of Australia until the 1920’s to catch up.

Most still continued to work a six-day week and the 40 hour week was not won till 1 January 1948, after a decision by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court.

Today, Australians owe a lot to those who fought for and won the eight-hour day and 40 hour week. Without them we would still be living pre-1856 era conditions.

At the beginning, the Labour Day procession was organized by the Victorian Trades Hall Council. Then it became  a joint event with the Melbourne City Council and eventually Trades Hall pulled out entirely. The consequence was that control was left in the hands of a body that represented the interests of the CBD financial and retail interests. The meaning of Labour Day began to get lost.

In 1951, the event was transformed into a celebration of fifty years of Federation and Moomba was born. Moomba became a totally commercial  yearly event in 1955 and the term Labour Day was no longer used until very recent times.

The term Moomba is an Aboriginal language expression meaning “let’s get together”. It was not known to the city fathers then that for Aboriginals, the word had a more intimate connotation. By the time this sunk in, it was too awkward to change it.

Much more important is that Labour Day and its meaning were buried. Full restoration in the public mind will take longer to achieve. At a time when Australia is facing pressure to end the eight-hour day, the full restoration of one of the most important days in Australia would serve us well.

As a nation, we need to decide on which road we want to travel and make this a reality.






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