This week author and historian Dr Liam Byrne spoke with On the Job with Francis Leach and Sally Rugg about the history of May Day and the significant role Australian unions played in shaping our history.
While May Day can be traced back a millennium to pagan rituals celebrating the new planting season, Byrne explained that May Day as we know it came to be with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and the subsequent eight-hour day movement.
“The big demand of the 19th century, most working-class movements across the world, was the eight-hour day.
“A lot of working people sort of said, well, we’re more than the work that we do. We shouldn’t spend all our lives doing work. Of course, we want to work, we want to work hard, we want to be proud of that.
“But we want to spend time with our family, we want to go to the football, we want to have a right to a work life balance.
“So… in the 19th century, there’s huge battles that go on in industry after industry, country after country around the world. Anywhere you have an industrial working class, you have the campaign for the eight-hour day.
“That’s where May Day actually comes from in the way that we currently understand it as a specifically working-class sort of celebration”.
It was thanks to the early unionising of Australian stonemasons and the collective industrial action they took, including strikes and protests, that the eight-hour day was won for Australian workers.
“The eight-hour day was one of many big victories of the Australian union movement,” said Byrne.
“Australia’s the first place in the world where the eight-hour day was won as an industry standard. It took place in Melbourne and Sydney across the industry in 1856. This was shocking across the world.
“This was internationally a benchmark, and it astounded people that it happened.
“Workers in many, many other places, were looking at Australia saying, ‘Well, how can we do what the Australians have done?’ ‘How can we be a bit more like they are down under?’
“It’s a sort of thing that we can really be quite proud of that – that some of the earliest sort of big international accomplishments of Australia was actually the union movement winning rights for workers.