Apr 182006
 
 Posted by on April 18, 2006 history  Add comments

This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 8 hour day. Melbourne was pretty much the first place in the world where workers were granted the 8 hour day (ironically, working on building the University of Melbourne). There is a celebration on Friday 21 April: Here are the details. Hope to see you there!

On Friday 21 April the 150th anniversary of achieving the 8 hour day will be celebrated, with a re-enactment at the University of Melbourne starting at 10am, followed by a march to Parliament House.
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Clocking On: Where is contemporary Melbourne?

In 2006 the 8 Hour Day Movement will celebrate its 150th anniversary. The 8 Hour Movement-a seminal moment in Labour history-spurred the Labour movement for over a century through its lavish Labour Day processions down Swanston Street, the carnival in the Alexander Gardens, and the public holiday (that we still celebrate).The movement was the catalyst for the establishment for the world's first Trades Hall (or People's Parliament) and a series of parliamentary reforms that placed Victoria and Australia at the forefront of workers rights globally.

The 8 hour movement was essentially about time; about painting a working life as a neatly bordered triptych of work, rest, and play. From the nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries, industrial capitalism requited a large regimented workforce centred upon the factories and industrial process of the second industrial revolution. Suburbs like Fitzroy and Collingwood were bustling hubs of industrial activity with the wailing sirens of factories beckoning their workers to ‘clock on', right up until the mid 1970s.

But with the changing nature of industrial capitalism; the post-industrialisation of the Australian economy, the globalisation of industrial processes, and increased casualisation of the workforce, the essential tool for the average worker is no longer simply the alarm clock, but is increasingly the mobile phone.

The work/life balance has always been at the core of the political exchange between labour and capital. However, the balance has changed depending upon who is in power and the technologies that they use to exercise power. Today is a low point in this struggle for labour, but a high point for the accumulation of capital.

The legacy of the 8 hour day

The legacy of the 8 hour movement is not to be found in the dusty annals of written history, but is found in the lives of the contemporary workforce. The legacy is cantered upon the struggle that each and every worker has between working for a living, and finding time to have fun with the fruits of our labour. This struggle is eternal (ie do you work too much now?).

The 8 Hour March

The Labour Day Parade (that later became the Moomba parade) 

The trade unionists' annual Labour Day procession down Swanston Street (originally called the Eight-Hour Day March) commemorated building workers' win of the eight-hour working day in the mid-19th century. On 21 April 1856, stonemasons working on the University of Melbourne marched on Parliament House to press their claims for a regulated eight-hour day.

 The skilled workers were in a good position to have their claims met as Melbourne was experiencing a building boom as some of the city's great public buildings, such as the Melbourne Public Library (now known as the State Library of Victoria), were under construction. Victoria's building workers were the first in the world to gain a 48-hour working week, which delivered them Robert Owen's ideal of a balanced day: eight hours' work, eight hours' rest and eight hours' recreation. (1) While this was an important achievement for the building workers, conditions for women and child labourers in particular remained unchanged for decades. (2)

As well as an eight-hour day, trade unionists gained a procession and a fair with a sports carnival to celebrate this achievement. And in 1879, some 23 years later, workers were awarded a paid holiday – Labour Day. The Labour Day procession was at its height in the late 19th century and was one of the largest and most important public events in Melbourne. Countless onlookers would line Swanston Street to see the parade with its decorated floats and magnificent hand-painted and embroidered banners. But by the 1950s the social and political environment had shifted significantly and the popularity of this procession had waned. This allowed the space for Moomba to take root. The last Labour Day procession was held in 1952, just four years short of a century of commemorating the eight-hour day.


(1) Today there is a commemorative statue opposite the Trades Hall in Lygon Street, Carlton. The ‘888' inscribed on its top signifies the popular slogan of the movement: eight hours' labour, eight hours' rest and eight hours' recreation.

(2) See Victorian Trades Hall Council, http://www.vthc.org.au/about_history/history1.html; accessed 24 March 2005.

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