Melbourne’s building workers won the world’s first eight-hour day without a loss in pay in 1856. This momentous struggle helped found a fighting tradition among the organised working class movement in Australia. The historic victory came before American workers – or even Karl Marx – raised the demand for an eight-hour day.
The positive impact on the lives of working people was enormous. But, today the intense struggle over working hours between bosses and workers continues. Problems like unpaid overtime, attacks on penalty rates, wage theft, casualisation and underemployment are rampant. Our historic tradition of struggle over working hours desperately needs renewing.
Melbourne in 1856
Melbourne was a boom town in 1856, well on its way to earning its nickname “Marvellous Melbourne”. Gold was discovered in the nearby districts in 1850 and the wealth flowed. It became one of the richest cities in the world. Businessmen and the colonial government clamoured to take advantage by building and developing a society and a market. Immigration rates rocketed.
Among the migrants were many with experience of struggle and rebellion in Europe. Irish republicans, English Chartists, and others fresh from the central European revolutions of 1848 all came. They brought their ideas and traditions.
A period of political and social unrest was already unfolding after the Eureka Rebellion at Ballarat two years earlier. Eureka provoked mass meetings, petitions and street marches in Melbourne that successfully defended the rebels from charges of treason and the governor’s hangman.
The struggle takes place
It was April 21, 1856 when stonemasons working on the University of Melbourne put down their tools and began a protest march to parliament. They gathered more workers from other building sites along the way. Their slogan was “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest”, often expressed as “888”. They demonstrated their collective strength and their unity of purpose, scaring the colonial authorities.
The ruling class, unnerved, decided not to risk a disruptive confrontation. They wanted to keep up the pace of building and development so they decided to give the workers a little more of the wealth they were amassing. They caved in to “888” and conceded the battle to avoid a war.
Within two weeks the newspapers reported that the government had agreed to an eight-hour day for all stonemasons on public works, like the University. Moreover, they agreed to keep paying the daily rate that was previously paid for 10 hours work.
It was a mighty victory of global significance. It was effectively a 25% pay rise, and 12 hours less at work per week made a huge impact on the workers’ standard of living. A win like this is hard to imagine for workers today, but it was the sudden reality for Melbourne’s construction workers.
James Stephens, a Welsh migrant who came to Melbourne via London, led the stonemason’s struggle. Stephens emerged from the British ‘Chartist’ movement, the first ever independent working class political movement.
Stephens was seriously injured on a building site in Wales during 1839 but received no compensation or support. This pushed him towards Chartist activism. It was Chartism that educated Stephens, giving him the ideas and training to lead the Melbourne workers.
In the same year he was injured he participated in the famous Newport rising, where nearly 10,000 armed Chartist workers marched on a local hotel to free some of their comrades who had been imprisoned. The police and the army fired on the demonstrators, shooting 22 dead and wounding 50.
Stephens escaped from the area and government reprisal and became a Chartist workers’ leader in London, fighting for a 10-hour working day and democratic rights. When his political activity was discovered by his employer, he was sacked from his job on Windsor Castle. In 1853 he emigrated to Melbourne to find work.
Stephens played a crucial role in Melbourne, drawing on his earlier experience and the ideas he championed as a Chartist. Leaders are the embodiment and expression of ideas and methods. The common Chartist ideas about a shorter working day, independent working class organisation and activism were central to the eight-hour day struggle in Melbourne.
These and other ideas were carried over the seas by working class migrants, after being forged in the furnaces of struggle in Europe. Today the potential for the rapid international spread of working class ideas, methods and struggles is even higher.
Was Melbourne’s really the first eight-hour day?
American workers didn’t begin a serious struggle for an eight-hour day until 1886. European workers only began to achieve an eight-hour day around the period of the 1917 Russian revolution, when European capitalism was under threat of being replaced with socialism.
The initial significance of the victory in Melbourne was in its widespread nature, it’s sanction by the government, and most of all in the fact that there was no corresponding drop in wages. These things earned the Melbourne victory its reputation as the “first” eight-hour day. But the Melbourne victory was preceded and connected to other important struggles nearby.
In New Zealand in 1840 Samuel Parnell, a carpenter, implemented an eight-hour day. Parnell also had a background in the British Chartist movement, like Stephens. As one of the only carpenters in New Zealand he achieved it by refusing to work for more than eight hours.
Parnell encouraged all newly arrived migrants to follow along, or else be thrown in the harbour. A year later workers building a road in New Zealand’s Hutt Valley went on strike to defend and cement the eight-hour day.
In Sydney, stonemasons on the Parramatta Road brewery were fighting for an eight-hour day at the same time as the struggle in Melbourne. Strikes in February and March 1856 achieved an eight-hour day for a limited number of workers but with a corresponding loss of pay. They received only 80% of the old daily rate.
While it was an important achievement, the Sydney victory was not implemented as widely and didn’t take on the same significance as a reference point for other workers campaigns.
Impact and legacy
The eight-hour struggle really founded the organised working class movement in Victoria and underpinned it for decades to come. By 1860 the eight-hour day was established throughout the building trades in Victoria. In four short years the victory of the eight-hour day had spread. Other workers took inspiration and struggled for shorter working hours.
It had a global impact too. The famous Marxist thinker and leader of the German revolution Rosa Luxemburg wrote that the victorious strike of April 21 was the origin of “May Day” and spurred the fight for “888” in America and Europe.
After their victory the eight-hour day movement initiated the construction of the Victorian Trades Hall. The hall is the oldest trade union building in the world still in use, and folklore says it has the longest flying red flag.
Expanding over decades into a famous grand building, it has been an important meeting point for trade union activists and working class campaigners over generations. Many struggles were organised within its walls and continue to be.
Education for workers was also greatly expanded on the back of the eight-hour day movement. Within the Victorian Trades Hall, a literary institute was established and provided evening and weekend classes to workers. In their newly won spare time workers studied a whole range of subjects, from technical to social and philosophical ones.
What is now RMIT University, neighbouring the Victorian Trades Hall, was originally the “Working Men’s College”. Enthusiastic trade unionists and their movement gave five times as much money to found this college as wealthy “philanthropists” did. The organisers were shocked!
In 1879 Victoria’s first public holiday was established as “Eight Hours Day” in honour of the struggle and its consequences. It was a testament to the power of the organised workers movement, with ‘888’ themed parades and celebrations becoming traditional.
The public holiday was a date used by trade unionists to mobilise and fight, like during the 1890 maritime strike. While the memory and practice of this militant tradition has been degraded over the decades, ‘Labour Day Weekend’ is still an important holiday celebrated during March in Victoria. Other states have equivalent public holidays won by trade unionists in struggle.
This chapter of working class struggle is rich with lessons and deserves the serious study of all trade unionists and progressive fighters today. It demonstrates that courage and confidence to struggle is contagious. And it shows the important role of leadership and ideas.
Militant strike tactics, mass meetings and street marches proved most effective in the fight for reforms. By contrast shop workers whose leaders advocated alliances with church figures and letter writing campaigns failed to win shorter hours for decades. When they did win shorter hours via an act of parliament in 1916, the bosses just ignored it.
Some trade unionists thought that the 8-hour day was the first step towards making capitalism better. Others even hoped that, via further incremental reforms, socialism could be established over time. But it wasn’t until 1928 that an 8-hour day, 6-day week was established in national law, and it was another 20 years before a 5-day week was achieved. Since then the 8-hour day has been eroded for many, with Australians now working some of the longest hours in the world.
Unfortunately, what capitalism gives with one hand it tries to take back with the other. That is why the fight for reforms needs to be linked to the fight to transform society along socialist lines.
Many of the best leaders of the working class at the time were learning that it is necessary to go beyond the limits of capitalism if you really want to end exploitation. Socialists today carry on these proud traditions, and are fighting to bring the militant approach of the 8-hour day movement back into the trade unions. These ideas are the best guide to winning shorter hours, higher pay and a better life for all.
By Kirk Leonard