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Eight Hours' Day Movement

On 21 April 1856, 700 skilled building workers marched through Central Melbourne demanding that the last remaining aberrant employers comply with the eight hours' day. Over the previous months, the Operative Masons' Society was joined by new trade unions of bricklayers, carpenters and joiners, plasterers and other building tradesmen to seek a reduced working day of eight rather than ten hours, in order to improve both their health and 'social and moral condition'. Most employers agreed, and the unions proclaimed the beginning of the system, quickly assuming the mantle of international pioneers. Over following decades, other groups of workers organised into unions and, supported by the Early Closing movement and other lobby groups, gained the eight hours' day. The 'sweated trades', however, continued to work longer hours, even though legislation was first introduced in 1873 to regulate such practices. The eight hours' day has remained a central tenet of labour's industrial and political claims over the 20th century.

The workers first celebrated their gain on 12 May 1856, marching behind a banner declaring 'Eight Hours' Work, Eight Hours' Rest, Eight Hours' Recreation', from 'Carlton Paddock' to a fĂȘte at Cremorne Gardens. Subsequently, the procession occurred on 21 April, and was legislated as a public holiday in 1879. The eight hours' day procession quickly became Melbourne's biggest; tens of thousands of spectators watched the unionists march behind their trade union banners, each giving 'its object lesson in industry'. The procession reached its zenith before World War I, but then lost relevance as an industrial strategy. It was not held at all during the 1930s depression. The procession route was changed in 1923, the date was altered in 1927 and again in 1949, and in 1934 Eight Hours' Day was renamed Labour Day. By the 1950s the procession had become moribund and it was superseded by Moomba in 1955.

Maryanne Mccubbin