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April 2006   

Interview: Head On
John Buchanan has been warning that WorkChoices would be a car crash. Now he surveys the damage.

Unions: Do You Have a Moment?
CFMEU Mining national secretary Tony Maher lets fly at the new industrial laws.

Industrial: Vital Signs
In his new book, Craig Emerson argues that destroying unionism will not be in Australia's long term interests.

Economics: Taxing Times
Frank Stilwell argues that there are progressive alternatives to the slash and burn approach to tax reform.

Environment: It Ain’t Necessarily So
Don't let anyone tell you that jobs and the environment are opposities, argues Neale Towart.

History: Melbourne’s Hours
Neale Towart reluctantly pays homage to Victoria's celebration of the eight hour day.

Immigration: Opening the Floodgates
John Howard is deciding more and more foreign workers should come into this country - without the rights of citizenship, writes John Sutton,

Review: Pollie Fiction
For someone barely 25 years Sarah Doyle has an enviable track record in theatre behind her.

Poetry: The Cabal
Poetry returns to Workers Online with this rollicking ode to employer power.


Democracy in Action
Former NSW Premier Neville Wran's speech to commemorate 150 years of responsible government.

The Westie Wing
There has been activity aplenty in the NSW Parliament this month, reports Ian West.

The Soapbox
From Chaver to Cobber
John Robertson, Unions NSW Secretary, hosting Passover at Sydney Trades Hall discovers the first comrades followed a bloke called Moses.

Postcard from New Orleans
Mark Brenner surveys the long-term impact of Hurricane Katrina on the regions workers.

The Locker Room
My Country Right Or In Lane Five
Phil Doyle observes the golden shower at the recent Commonwealth Games, and asks what it means for the last great unpredictable drama.

Vale Bill Hartley
Unlike some of his comrades, Bill Hartley never departed from his position as a radical nor did he die rich in assets, writes Bob Scates.


The Cowra Clause
The plight of the Cowra meatworkers is a fitting illustration of the way the new industrial laws will fundamentally shift the balance of relations in the Australian workplace.


 Abattoir Boss Slaughters Andrews

 More Slaughter in South Australia

 Pickets Won't Face Cannon

 Teens Win Thousands

 Praise the Laws

 Where The Bloody Hell Is Our Contract?

 Building Crusade Raids Pockets

 Workers Shows Its Hand

 It's All Yellow, Mine Barons

 Lismore Nine Breaks Ranks

 Uber Bosses Clean Up

 Howard's Skills Solution: Sack Apprentices

 Spineless Companies Block Safety

 Boxall in Sickie Backflip

 Activist's What's On!

 Crap TV
 Social Action
 French revolution
 Fan Mail
 Belly Spreads The Word
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Melbourne’s Hours

Neale Towart reluctantly pays homage to Victoria's celebration of the eight hour day.

In this Victoria, our dear land,

The first that dared be free,

To show the world what freedom meant

In new lands 'cross the sea

- Ode to the Eight Hours' Pioneers

Hamilton Mackinnon

April 21, 1896

Well, they weren't quite the first, but, as the Commonwealth Games just demonstrated, the Victorians always love a parade, and Melbourne established the eight-hour day by marching down the street, and continues to do so in honor of that achievement.

That date, the 21st April is enshrined as the establishment by workers as the start of their own control of the time that they sell their labour power to their employers. Unions and supporters in Victoria are celebrating this achievement and thinking about what it means today with various exhibitions, conferences and seminars throughout Victoria this year. They have prepared some excellent teaching materials that range across all issues of working hours, sick leave, work and family, occupational health, worker education and training, sport, leisure and culture. This article is largely drawn from this material.

Robert Owen: An employer shows how

The call for a shorter working day had begun in Britain with Robert Owen, a Welsh social reformer and factory owner, who began to demand a ten hour working day in 1810. By 1817 he was calling for 'Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest' which was taken up by the early Chartist movement, along with demands for improved working conditions, and other social, political and economic reforms.

The New Zealanders Take the Lead

Carpenters were the first to claim an eight hour day, but in New Zealand. In February 1840 Samuel Duncan Parnell (a Carpenter) landed at Petone. A fellow passenger, George Hunter, asked Parnell, upon finding he was a carpenter, to build him a store. He refused unless Hunter agreed to an eight hour day starting at 8 am. He is reputed to have said "There are 24 hours given us per day and eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which men do what little things they do for themselves."

Hunter accepted under protest. A wage of 5s. per day of eight hours was agreed on. Parnell began work on the store but he soon had a quarrel with Hunter and did not complete the job. The eight-hour system caught on, however, despite several attempts to stop it. Incoming ships were met and new arrivals told not to accept any other conditions. Although wages fell to 3s. 6d. for a time, the eight-hour day remained the standard working day for most classes of labour.

Parnell's demand did not come out of the blue. He worked as a carpenter in England and in the 1830s there were vigorous debates and disputes about reducing the working day.

Alexander Stuart paid tribute to Parnell with an In Memoriam poem in the Sydney Bulletin. In the course of the long poem, Stuart celebrated Parnell's greatest achievement:

He worked with head - with heart and hand,

From early youth to age,

And in a new, unfettered land

He taught this precept sage,

'Eight hours for work, eight hours for play

And eight for sleep excel.'

This was the charter for each day

Of our wise king, Parnell!

In England, a ten hour working day was legislated for women and children in 1847. In France, a twelve-hour working day was established following the 1848 revolution.

Chartists and Chartist sympathisers had come to Australia, some as immigrants, some to escape prosecution and some as convicts transported as a consequence of their political views; and they were active in the campaign for the eight hour day. In 1855, Chartists had been involved in the Eureka Stockade.

The following year, it was two former Chartist activists, James Galloway and James Stephens, who were in the vanguard of the agitation for shorter working hours, and who led the stonemasons off the job at the University of Melbourne.

Born in Wales in 1821, James Stephens arrived in Victoria on 17 July 1853, aboard the Elizabeth. Having worked as a mason in Wales and England he, like many of his British counterparts, headed for Australia when the gold rush created an enormous demand for tradesmen.

Before arriving in Australia, James joined the Masons' Society and the Chartist movement, which campaigned for democratic political reform, including the vote for all men. He worked as a mason at Windsor Castle, but was dismissed when it became known that he was a Chartist. While working on the new Houses of Parliament in London, he increasingly directed his energies to craft unionism, becoming a prominent leader of the masons and an experienced union organiser.

Two and half years after his arrival in Victoria, James Stephens and James Gilvray Galloway resuscitated the Operative Masons' Society by forming a local branch of the union at Clark's Hotel in Collingwood.

This meeting on 4 February 1856 is seen as the genesis of the eight-hour movement. A committee was set up to confer with the building contractors, and most cooperated on the introduction of the eight hour day. The masons argued against labouring long hours in the heat, and sought time to improve their 'social and moral condition'. On 26 March 1856, a mass meeting of employers and operatives resolved that the eight hour day would come into force in April.

However, two contractors resisted the agreement. In response, on 21 April, stonemasons downed tools and marched from the University of Melbourne to Parliament House, both then under construction, calling out workers at building sites on the way. Of the 'glorious 21st of April' Stephens wrote 'It was a burning hot day and I thought the occasion a good one, so I called upon the men to follow me, to which they immediately consented.'

"Masons were in the vanguard for a variety of reasons; they were skilled craftsmen, proud of their skills and trade, they were organised, doing a job that could not be done by the untrained and unskilled, and realised they were needed by employers and planners intent on erecting fine stone buildings. In the building boom of the 1850s associated with the discovery of gold in Australia, masons were in a strategic position with an essential role in the building industry that gave them considerable power should they decide to utilise it.

The climate also contributed; working 10 hours a day exposed to the extremes and vicissitudes of the Australian climate, as masons did, sharpened the desire for a shorter working day. (As) Galloway explained, he and others had come to the colony 'to better our condition, not to act as the mere part of machinery.'

The flow-on from the Eight Hour Day victory

Trade Unions

In the immediate aftermath of the Eight Hour Day victory, the Victorian trade union movement began to plan for the future by organising a permanent location. They were granted land on the corner of Lygon and Victoria Streets in 1858 and, after occupying a temporary structure, started work in 1874 on the Trades' Hall and Literary Institute of Melbourne, which still occupies this site. It was the world's first Trades Hall building.

Over the past 150 years trade unions have continued to fight for workers' rights. Wage increases; reduction and control over hours of work; working conditions; occupational health and safety laws; equal pay; paid public holidays and paid annual, parental, and long service leave; penalty rates and pay loadings; compensation for injury and the right to be given notice and consulted about changes at work are among the achievements of the trade union movement.

Hours of work

Another 46 years were to pass before a further significant reduction in hours for all workers occurred. In 1930, the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation & Arbitration established the standard working week at 44 hours, following precedents set by gains in a variety of industries over the previous decade.

The five-day forty hour week did not become standard until after World War 2 (1948).

In 1982 the metal trades gained the 38-hour week which then became the national standard.

Recreation and long service leave

Not until 1936, was one week of annual leave on full pay included in an award for the first time. By 1941, one week's paid leave had become standard in all awards, and by 1945 it had increased to two weeks. It was almost twenty years (1963) before annual paid leave increased again, this time to three weeks, and to four weeks in 1974.

In 1951, New South Wales enacted the first legislation in the world to provide for long-service leave, and other states followed suit. In 1964, thirteen weeks' long service leave was granted to Commonwealth workers. Today's standard is thirteen weeks for fifteen years, although some workers have access to two or even three months of leave, after ten years of service.

Sick leave

Sick leave was first introduced into some awards in 1922, but it wasn't until 1941 that two and half days become sick leave became standard. Under the award system, the general standard at the time of writing was 40 hours of paid sick leave in the first year of service and up to 64 hours in each subsequent year.4

Family leave

Compassionate leave to care for family members or to attend to urgent family business, such as attending funerals, was first introduced into federal awards in the early 1960s.

The issue of family leave was first addressed in 1990 following the Federal Government's ratification of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 156, Workers With Family Responsibilities. In 1994 the Industrial Relations Commission handed down its Family Leave Test Case decision, which established a minimum entitlement to family leave for all permanent full-time and part-time employees. Casuals do not have family leave entitlements.

Standard family leave, or personal carers' leave, provides workers with up to 5 days' paid leave per year to care for family or household members who are ill. It can include leave to attend to domestic responsibilities or emergencies. It was designed to help employees avoid conflict between work and family responsibilities and to do so without fear of discrimination. Family Leave provisions do not increase an employee's overall leave entitlements as leave is taken from aggregated sick and bereavement leave entitlements.

In 2005, entitlements vary, but up to ten days leave a year is available in some industries to care for family members or for family emergencies.

Maternity and parental leave

Since the 1960s there has been a continuous rise in the participation of married women and/or women with small children in the paid labour force. The battle for maternity leave has however been a long and contentious one. The existence of a maternity leave entitlement enables a working woman to have and care for her baby for a limited period without resigning from her job. The first maternity and paternity leave was made available to Commonwealth employees in 1973 but it wasn't until 1989 that the Industrial Relations Commission made maternity leave a standard award provision.

In 1990, parental leave was extended to men, and, in 1994, changes to the Industrial Relations Act provided access to parental leave (including maternity leave) for all workers, including those not covered by federal awards. Depending on the employing industry, the exact conditions may vary; one of the most contentious has been, and remains, access to paid maternity leave.

Workers get a life - working conditions and citizenship

As working hours reduced, workers, no longer totally exhausted, were able to engage in community, educational and leisure activities.


Those opposed to shorter working hours had argued that it would lead to deterioration in the behaviour and morals of workers, who would have more time on their hands to drink to excess and engage in other unseemly activities. The outcomes, however, were quite different. Shorter hours enabled workers to pursue a range of other interests and ambitions.

The original Victorian Trades Hall, financed by worker contributions and built by their own labour, was opened in 1859. The establishment of the Trades Hall and Literary Institute of Melbourne was a direct result of the Eight Hour Day 'boon'. Classes started there in 1859.

...Long before any higher educational establishment had been provided, hundreds of the youth of the young metropolis could be seen in its class rooms receiving instruction.

Literary Institutes, Mechanics' Institutes and Working Men's Institutes sprang up around Victoria, modelled on British prototypes, dedicated to advancing the social and educational standing of working men (and later women), as well as to supporting the work of trade unions. They were the forerunners of mining schools, agricultural colleges, working men's colleges, and eventually technical colleges.

The first Mechanics' Institute was established in Melbourne in 1839. It was renamed The Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873; it still operates as a library and theatre. Following the eight-hour-day victory, nearly a thousand Mechanics' Institutes sprang up around Victoria. They were important centres for adult education, social and cultural activities. RMIT University began as the Working Men's College in 1887; its motto was 'perita manus mens exculta' (a skilled hand, a cultivated mind).


The Eight Hour Day pioneers took seriously their claim that with more leisure time they were free to engage in moral and social self-improvement.

'(S)addlers, stevedores, brewers, bootmakers... were appointed by the 8 Hour Anniversary Committee to Melbourne's public institutions (to) serve as governors, on anything from the Children's Hospital to the philanthropic societies... because it was important to them to be part of civic life...

It's important to remember those events in an industrial sense--that workers need to be thought of as more than just workers. In 1856, that was a core element in the argument.'

Successive members of the Eight Hour Day Committee established a magnificent tradition of charity work after the first Eight Hour Day procession fete raised £248 for Melbourne Hospital and Benevolent Asylum.

Sport and Leisure

Sporting events were a feature of the Eight Hour Day celebrations. Limits on hours of work, which freed up time for sport, enabled such central aspects of Victorian life as football to develop.

Foot races were popular as were cycling events from the 1880s. Shorter working hours in the 1870s--for those who won a half day holiday from 1pm on Saturdays--saw a rapid growth of football with thousands of spectators thronging to sports grounds.

A pattern of weekend leisure activities evolved that included sporting competitions, often associated with betting; outdoor activities like fishing; shopping; and going to hotels, theatres and dance venues.


Having won eight hours of leisure, the trade union movement became involved with organising 'self improvement' and recreational activities. Songs and music accompanied the opening of the first Trades Hall in 1859 and were typical of social evenings where workers could display their literary, musical and dancing skills.

Over the decades trade unions have promoted the establishment of national cultural institutions; unionised musicians and actors; encouraged work-based groups such as camera clubs and provided access to cultural events as well as participating in activities with cultural workers.

In the 1980s trade unions were involved in numerous, wide-ranging projects through the Australia Council's Art and Working Life program.

The work life balance: one step forward, two steps back?

Despite dramatic changes in working life since 1856, the Eight Hour Day movement has contemporary significance because control over working time remains a source of conflict and tension, both in terms of the quality of life of individual families, and the sustainability of communities. Over-employment, underemployment, unemployment, casualisation, flexible shift and roster arrangements, and unpaid work are all components contributing to an increasingly complex and fragmented workforce.

The Eight Hour Day ensured workers could have what we call work/life balance. Today, many in the workforce are in the position of wishing to either reduce or increase their hours. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that average full-time hours are increasing with one in four working 45 hours or more a week. On the other hand, just over one in four are engaged in casual employment which is often precarious and lowly paid, and casual employees usually have little control over the hours they work. Over 70% of those in part-time work want full-time employment: in 2002, over half a million part-time Australian workers wanted extra hours.

Stress, fatigue and related health issues are of increasing concern as overtime hours increase. Family relationships and community involvement also suffer. In 1954, 29% of women worked. Now the figure is around 68%. In many families women still do all or a large proportion of the domestic work. This 'double shift' means that after a full day's work, women begin a second job when they leave to go home at five. In 2002, 30% of Australian full-time workers were working 50 hours or more a week.

The future of work

What will be the future of work in Australia? Many of the certainties about work which were commonly held by earlier generations no longer apply, and the industrial landscape that young people, still at school, will meet in the future is changing rapidly.

The conference in Melbourne, New Standards for New Times (22-23 June) will face up to this issue with ideas and challenges for the labour movement and communities. For details go to

ABC Radio National will be broadcasting two programs about the eight-hour day and the future of work in April on their Hindsight program (Sunday afternoons)


For lots of information on the history of the eight-hour day, exhibitions and events in the coming year, and conferences go to

A paper considering some of the major changes that have already occurred in workplaces, and considering implications for the future (The Future of Work by Ian Watson, John Buchanan, Iain Campbell and Chris Briggs, an abridged version of chapters 2-10 of Fragmented Futures: New Challenges in Working Life, Federation Press, Sydney, 2003) is available at .

For information aboutParnell in New Zealand go to


Thanks to Paul True for initial information about Parnell.

Rowan Cahill, Worker Online 2005


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