Melbourne in the 1850s brought together an unusual set of circumstances that was to lead to the first sustained achievement of the 8 hour day (or 48 hour week). The discovery of gold in 1851 with the ensuing gold rush had transformed the colony. Nearly all able-bodied men headed off to the goldfields meaning that those who stayed behind and were prepared to do an honest day’s work were in a strong bargaining position. Those with initiative were able to set up their own businesses and, starting with little or no resources, were able to prosper supplying the myriad needs of the fast growing colony. A new aspirational class was emerging.

Meanwhile, in Ballarat in 1854, the easy alluvial gold had gone, and it required small enterprises working hard and long in dangerous conditions to access the remaining gold. Those who remained and were accepted into these businesses were often more highly educated than the governing authorities. With the Eureka Uprising this aspirational group was also eventually able to bring about change in their treatment.

Back in Melbourne skilled tradesmen and contractors were in high demand for the building boom that followed the gold rush and anyone who has seen a streetscape of central Melbourne will understand that skilled stonemasons were key to the construction of an impressive public building. Then, as now, the employment status in the skilled trades was quite fluid. On one project you might be an employee, on another a self-employed contractor and on yet another a business owner and employer.

Monument to James Galloway
in
Melbourne General Cemetery
(note the three spheres on the top
representing the earth surmounted
by the figure eight)

James Gallowy - tombstone

 

The stonemasons took up the cause of the 8 Hour Day – 8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest – which had already been advocated in Europe and elsewhere. It was the managerial skills of James Galloway and the shop floor smarts of James Stephens that was to lead to the negotiation of the first sustainable 8 hour day – without reduction of pay – for the stonemasons of Melbourne. On 21st April 1856 the stonemasons at Melbourne University downed tools and marched to Parliament House to celebrate their achievement. Along the way the passed several other public building sites where these conditions had not been achieved. Many of the workers on these sites also downed tools, joined the march and within several weeks had achieved the same conditions. (It is possibly the joining of these additional workers that has led some recent commentators to label the celebration march as a 'protest march'.) Although the 8 hour days had been temporarily achieved in New Zealand, America and Sydney at earlier times, they were not sustained, so the Melbourne movement was seen as a particularly significant since this is where it 'took root'.

The 8 Hours Movement was restricted to skilled tradesmen (not women) and they set about building the impressive Trades Hall in Carlton as well as providing strict training courses and apprenticeships in their profession. A public holiday was declared and on this day there would be major processions through the street celebrating the achievements of the various professions followed by uplifting entertainment. At this stage, the 8 Hours Movement may be thought of as on a direct line between medieval trade guilds or lodges and modern day professional associations. In fact, a number of 8 Hours Men returned to build the Trades Hall in their capacities as employer and business owner.

Along with the 48 hour week, it was negotiated that by working longer than 8 hours on a 'weekday' a half day holiday could be made available on a Saturday. Melbourne was one of the first cities in the world where many employees had Saturday afternoons off, and it was also around this time that a team game was starting to blossom and form a natural activity for such a half-holiday.

With the rise of organised labour amongst the less skilled employees and the development of the union movement the 8 hour condition slowly spread across the country to many more employees and, through the anti-sweating movement, to those contracting to public bodies. The IWW ('Wobblies') would not allow employers as members and Trades Hall gradually restricted itself to representing only employees. For those industries which required continuous operation and regular shift times then the shift length is ideally a divisor of 24 such as 12, 8 or 6, and three 8 hour shifts gradually became an industry norm. Mainly through the efforts of the unions, the 6 day working week was later reduced and by the 1950s had mainly changed to a 5 day week and the standard working week for most employees had reduced to 40 hours. Some industries such as retail with numbers of casual employees or involving numbers of small and family businesses proved more difficult for unions to influence and in the end governments were pressured to introduce restricted trading hours as an indirect way of controlling working hours. Cities such as Perth still retain many of these restricted hours. With employees aspiring to something better than mid nineteenth century working conditions, the Eight Hour banner was not necessarily a useful one for those who already had shorter hours and replacement terms such as the 'shorter hours movement' were tried but never fired the public imagination in the same way. After all, such slogans begged the question of "shorter than what?".

With the influence of International Socialism, the May Day march attracted more emphasis than the 8 Hours Parade and by the 1950s the 8 Hours Day had been renamed ‘Labour Day’ and in Melbourne the 8 Hour celebrations were replaced with Moomba.

BL

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