Labour Day: The History Behind Why You Have The Day Off

Greg Smith
May 1, 2018
min read
Historic Labour Day

How are you planning on spending your Labour Day long weekend this year? A BBQ down by the beach perhaps? Or maybe you’ll spend the day just relaxing at home with some cold beers?

Whatever it is you’ve got planned, it may surprise you to know that the only holiday dedicated to the workers of Queensland, has more than 150 years of history behind it, anchored in the idea of the little man sticking it to the boss – and that’s something we can all relate to.

In 2015, when the Palaszczuk government reversed the Newman government’s decision to have the holiday in October, Treasurer Curtis Pitt stated that the switch back to May was about returning the day to its “rightful, historical place on the calendar”, which, when looking back on the beginnings of Labour Day, it’s not exactly clean cut.

The first incarnation of Labour Day in Queensland occurred on March 16, 1861, where a small group of skilled workers took to the streets of Brisbane to celebrate their recent victory in establishing the eight-hour workday – the system wherein a worker works for eight hours, has recreation for eight hours and sleeps for eight hours per day (mind you, most were expected to work six days a week).

The holiday, which continued on for more than 20 years without the workers who hadn’t achieved the eight-hour day, was said to have largely been exclusionary and participants showed little sympathy for excluded workers who were still working long days of predominantly manual labour.

Labour Day rally in Brisbane, 1908
‍‍Eight Hour Day procession in Wickham Street, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1908. Photo: State Library of Queensland

On May 1, 1891, in line with what many developed countries outside of Australia (as well as various other states) were calling May Day, over a thousand striking sheep shearers took part in a march in Barcaldine in protest of workers right and conditions. Though – due to poor timing (heading into winter) and staunch refusal to cave from the graziers – the strike and protest were unsuccessful and the shearers returned to work, but it gave the impetus to shift the Eight-Hour Day celebrations in Queensland to May.

This shift was first established in 1893 when it would take place on the first Monday of May and became known as Labour Day by 1912.

Labour Day would go on to offer workers a chance to reflect on the vitality of trade unions in attaining equality for employees. Celebration with picnics, parades and marches took place all throughout Queensland, which also encouraged workers to express themselves and the issues they faced as the world headed towards the industrial revolution.

Over the past century, further significant changes in worker’s rights, including the introduction of the two-day weekend in 1948 followed suit, resulting in great improvements in the quality of our ever-evolving working lives. And yet, even with all of these triumphs, the importance of Labour Day and its history is often overlooked.

Butchers posing at Brisbane Labour Day Rally in 1920
‍Butchers-posing-in-front-of-their-Labor-Day-float-Brisbane-1920. Photo: State Library of Queensland

“I don’t think people generally know the history of Labour Day,” says senior consultant at Monica Clare Recruitment, Ty Brennock. “Its purpose and the outcome of what started it is very important to know and appreciate. It’s the very reason why workers today don’t have to worry about trench foot, or working with asbestos or even the canary falling off our shoulder.”

And although there has been much progress, there’s still so much to fight for. “Our fight today is one for diversity and acceptance, equal pay and opportunity for women in the workforce,” Brennock explains. “There’s also the need of flexibility to complement our family lives and not be swallowed whole by work. Not to mention the pending doom of work as we know it by robots.

Our jobs will change and disappear fairly rapidly in the next few decades -just like in the past-, and fighting for recognition of the value of the workforce is more important than ever.”

It truly is near impossible to imagine the struggles of those who marched and protested for eight-hour work days or better conditions in the rugged shearing sheds of central Queensland. Though, as we put our feet up this Labour Day, the very least we could do is reflect on the principles behind the movements that remain unchanged to this (May)day.

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