Labour Day | Melbourne 2016

Labour Day | Melbourne 2016

Melbourne celebrates Labour Day with a public holiday on Monday 14th March 2016.

Labour Day has its origins in the eight hour day movement, which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest.

Labour Day is an annual holiday celebrated in Australia resulting from efforts of the labour union movement, to celebrate the economic and social achievements of workers.

1856 | The Eight Hour Day March

The Eight Hour Day was a campaign in the 1850s that brought about one of the most important changes to the rights of workers. There were two major campaigns that took place, both in Sydney and Melbourne, but it’s the Melbourne movement that is widely known for successfully changing the general rights of workers for the better.

In 1856 on April 21st, Victorian Stonemasons staged a well-organised and executed protest. The Stonemasons had been working on the construction of the Old Quadrangle Building, the original site of Melbourne University, when they all downed their tools and proceeded to march on to Parliament House along with other members of the building trade.

A similar strike had already been held that year in Sydney, lasting two weeks, and while the Stonemasons there had won the right to an eight-hour working day, they had also had to suffer reductions in wages.

Contrary to the efforts in New South Wales, the march held in Melbourne saw that the government agreed that workers employed on public works would have an eight-hour day, while also having no loss of pay in the bargain. It was because of this that the Melbourne protest is now seen as a pivotal moment in the rights of workers, one that inspired other changes over the many decades that followed.

During the march held in Melbourne, those attending the protest carried banners that held the symbol of three figure 8’s. The intertwined numbers '888' represented the ideal that the workers were fighting for – “8 Hours Work, 8 Hours Recreation, 8 Hours Rest”. Coined as early as 1817 by Robert Owen, an English Socialist, the significant motif of this slogan would later adorn the pediment of many of Aistralia’s union buildings.

Following the success of the Eight Hour Day protest, the Stonemasons celebrated that year with a holiday and procession held on Monday 12th of May, known as the the Whit-Monday holiday then. Inspiring all that benefited from the new law, the parade saw almost 700 people take part in the march, with patrons of the parade holding backgrounds in as many as 19 trades.

Travelling from the Carlton Gardens to the Cremorne Gardens in Richmond, the march was a festive event with workers marching proudly with decorative banners alongside floats and bands performing.

Remind you of Moomba, anyone?

One of the legacies of the Eight Hour Day protest is Moomba. Following the success of the protest in 1856, processions were held every year to commemorate the original protest march.

The day was officially declared a public holiday by the Victorian government in 1879 and for decades the Eight Hour Day marches were the largest public celebrations that Victoria saw, attracting tens of thousands of people with parades held in Melbourne and country towns throughout Victoria.

In 1934 the Eight Hour Day was renamed Labour Day and during the Depression era of the 30s and the Second World War, the marches began to decline with the final march held in Melbourne in 1951.

Almost a century after the original protest, Moomba was introduced in 1955 to replace the marches that celebrated the victory of workers in the Eight Hour Day campaign.

But hang on… what about Sydney?

Oh, all right then… Yes, it’s true, there is a lot that owes to the earlier campaign held in Sydney. While it can be argued that the efforts of Melbourne’s Stonemasons were far more successful, it can’t be denied that the actions taken in Sydney would have put the wind in their banners, so to speak.

The earlier campaign held in Sydney began in August of 1855 when the Stonemasons Society there issued an ultimatum to employers that after six months the masons would work no more than eight hours a day.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for such a demand - the gold rush had seen a major increase in Australia’s population, with many new buildings being erected while there was a shortfall in the skilled labour needed.

While a small group of Stonemasons in Sydney had won the right to an eight-hour working day by going on strike before the six-month deadline, it wasn’t until February in 1856 that the majority of Stonemasons across Sydney made good on their threat and a two-week strike followed. Opposed by many employers, the Stonemasons won the eight-hour day by early March of that year, but the win came at a loss, with the workers also suffering a reduction in wages.

It’s due to this that the Melbourne movement is widely recognised as a milestone event that led to the establishment of the Eight Hour Day, recognised internationally as a world first.

Another world first that came from the Melbourne demand for the Eight Hour Day was that the Victorian trade union movement began to plan for the future by organising a permanent location and were granted land on the corner of Lygon and Victoria Streets in 1858. After occupying a temporary structure there, work began in 1874 on the Trades' Hall and Literary Institute of Melbourne, a building which still occupies this site and is the world's very first Trades Hall building.


As successful as the Eight Hours Movement was, it was mostly men who worked in skilled trades who benefited from the changes. Women had to endure much longer working hours and substantially lower pay with women working as domestic servants, in clothing factories and as piece-workers at home having to work as many as 14 hours a day even by the 1890s, long after the Victorian government had granted female factory workers and children the Eight Hour Day in 1873.

Working Today
Despite the legacy of the Eight Hour Day, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures in 2002 showed that the average full-time hours were increasing steadily with one in four working 45 hours or more a week. The line between how many hours we do or don’t work is further blurred these days with the ability to work online seeing many people continuing their work away from the office.

The Belvidere Hotel
North Fitzroy’s Belvidere Hotel, located on Brunswick Street and Victoria Parade, provided a meeting place for trade unionists while they campaigned for the Eight Hour Day. These campaigners even came to be known as 'Belviderites', named after the hotel. The hotel, later renamed Eastern Hill Hotel and now a part of the St. Vincents Hosptial complex, was built between 1854 and 1856 and is also one of the only surviving hotels from the pre-goldrush era.

The Vine Hotel
The Vine Hotel, located on Wellington Street in Collingwood, has gone through several name changes since being established in 1868. Originally known as the Caledonian Hotel, in 1869 it was taken over by Richard Hardman, who renamed it Eight Hours Hotel, in honour of the eight hour movement. In 1872, however, it changed hands again, and was renamed the Vine Hotel.

Victorian Labour Day is on the second Monday of March every year.

Date: Monday 14th of March 2016

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