Friday, April 27, 2007

The History and Meaning of Labour Day


The day has a long history, which dates back in one form or another more than 130 years.
In Queensland, it has special significance, as we are the only state where Labour Day involves a mass procession and celebration.

Trade Unions, which represent the collective interest of workers, play an essential role in ensuring the continued relevance and spirit of this celebration.


The origins of Labour Day stem from the early 1860s when the general campaign for an eight-hour working day began.

This issue was important for employees, many of whom were expected to toil for unreasonably long hours in poor conditions.

While annual processions of unionists began in the mid 1860s, these marches were quite small and restricted too only those who had achieved the eight-hour principle.


The American fight for an eight-hour day had gained considerable momentum by the late nineteenth century, with a May Day celebration emerging that has influenced many workers worldwide.

May Day became entrenched in the United States when unionists on 1 May 1886 held a demonstration about working hours.

In Chicago at this time five people were executed on trumped up charges and this incident served to strengthen the resolve of workers to fight for basic rights.


The battle for fairer hours and conditions continued in Queensland and although by 1888 eleven unions had won significant gains, however conditions for many people had deteriorated.
A greater sense of union solidarity began to emerge at this time as workers in varying industries banded together in the common struggle.

This solidarity resulted in the Labour Day march being opened to all workers for the first time in 1890.

The initial linking in Queensland of Labour Day with May Day occurred in the outback Queensland town of Barcaldine on 1 May 1891 when striking bush workers marched through the streets.

The Brisbane celebration was moved to May in 1893 and this date was soon set aside for the annual event throughout Queensland.


Over the years the objectives of Labour Day have changed.

With most Queensland workers winning an eight-hour day by 1916, wider social, industrial and political issues became the focus of the activity.

Since the early part of this century Labour Day has continued to grow in significance in Queensland.

It is now an occasion when unions, community groups, ethnic organisations and other people join in celebration.

We have a public holiday for the occasion and we are the only state in which the official trade unions recognise the day with major marches and activities in various centres.

Interstate trade unions support the objective of May Day but do not have a public holiday. While they do indeed have a holiday for Labour Day at a different time, this event passes without major union celebration like that, which occurs in Queensland.


Much has been achieved to enhance working conditions in the past 130 years.

The survival and growth of Labour Day reflects this increasing recognition of employee rights and the importance of trade unions.

Unions are associations of employees which have banded together to pursue common industrial goals.

Since the 1800s unions have been at the forefront of the campaign to improve the position of employees.

They are now recognised as the legitimate representatives of working men and women and are concerned with a range of issues involving the wages and conditions of their members.

To further enhance the voice and organisation of the labour movement, unions in 1927 established a central coordinating body called the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
The ACTU, which now has 51 affiliated unions nationally, also has branches in each state and territory. The ACTU Queensland has 40 affiliated unions, representing more than 350,000 workers.

The main functions of the ACTU centrally and in each state and territory are to provide unions with advice and support and to help coordinate industrial activity.