Labour Day and the History behind it


Photo Credit (David Jackmanson)

Labour Day is an annual holiday in Australia to celebrate the economic and social achievements of workers that each state celebrates on different dates.  To most people these days it’s a day to march with your peers and to show strength of the Unions of Australia and their achievements to gain workers their rights in the workplace.  Some of these include safer working conditions, limited hours of work, payed overtime, sick leave, payed annual leave, superannuation and maternity leave.  So what’s the history behind it?


The 8 hour work day

The history of Labour Day goes back a long way, to the 21st of April 1856 in Melbourne, Victoria.  On building sites around Melbourne, Stonemasons and Builders downed their tools and marched to Parliament House.  For workers across Australia they achieved what is known now as an 8 hr day – 8 hours of work, 8 hours of recreation and 8 hours of rest.


The Eureka Stockade

Previous to this in 1854 on the 3rd of December 22 gold diggers and 5 troops were killed in the Eureka Stockade.  The Eureka Stockade came about as the Government used ‘Government Miners Licences’ as a form of Taxing the Miners.  Licence fees had to be paid regardless of whether a digger’s claim resulted in any gold. Less successful diggers found it difficult to pay their licence fees.  On the 30th of November the Diggers held a mass burning of these licences and swore an oath under the southern cross flag. Several days later police and troops attacked the stockade outnumbering the diggers and after 20 minutes of battle it was over.  The Diggers demands were met in March 1855, diggers possessing a miner’s right costing one pound, whereas previously a six months residency and an eight pound yearly mining licence were required before a digger could register to vote.


The Great Shearers Strike

In 1891 the ‘Great Shearers Strike’ was a major confrontation between Queensland Graziers and their shearing hands.  The pastoralists had claimed their prices were falling, they wanted ‘Freedom of Contract’. The shearers had refused to sign this agreement, insisting on their right to work alongside unionists only for a set and fair wage.  Free labour was sourced by the Pastoralists executive council and were brought up by train from Melbourne, Victoria.  These workers were rousabouts, cooks and shearers and were brought up to take the jobs of the union workers.   The free labour workers (scabs) were offered more money than the union workers were demanding.  Unionist rallied rifles and again troops were sent in with machine guns and rifles.  In the coming months many riots and confrontations occurred in the towns of Clermont, Capella, Barcaldine, Tambo, Springsure, Winton and Balcaldine.  Unionists cut the telephone lines and attempted to wreck a train crossing at the Abor Creek Bridge.  The Rockhampton Police magistrate read a government proclamation at camps outside Clermont, requesting unionists hand over their arms and ammunition, but unionists reacted angrily. They burnt effigies of the Premier at Barcaldine and continued burning woolsheds and fences.  On the 10th of March around 1500 unionist blocked 24 police troops from leaving the Balcaldine train station.  Another riot occurred on the 18th of March and the police were told to fire upon the unionists, instead they drew their bayonets and the striking workers withdrew. In May 1891, 3000 striking shearers marched under the ‘Eureka Flag’ and put forward their protests of poor working conditions and low wages, this was held at the ‘tree of knowledge’ in Balcaldine.  The unions changed their manifesto and told the encouraging unionists to enroll on the electoral roll to have their voice heard.  In June the strikes were over and the United Pastoralists Association were prepared to employ the rebel workers.


The Labour Party

The Queensland Labour Party (now known as the Australian Labour Party) was formered on 9th of September 1982,  the manifesto was read out under the ‘tree of knowledge’ in Barcaldine, QLD.


So that’s the story.  If you are in Queensland today, enjoy your day off, remember the workers before you that had the guts to stand up and make sacrifices for what they believed in, then go back to work tomorrow appreciating how good they have made it for us and respecting them by helping to uphold their legacies.



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