The Guardian October 27, 1999

Reflecting on 1999 SA Labor Day

by Eric Cathro
SA Labor Day Celebrations Committee President Labor Day or Eight Hours Day as it was known, was born out of struggle by workers in the 1800s. It signalled a massive victory over the employer class of that time when the Eight Hour Day was won and it should be jealously protected as the workers' day.
The first mention of an eight-hour working day in Australia seems to have been made around the time of labour shortage following the Australian gold rush in 1851 which so improved the bargaining position of Australian labour as to make it possible for labour to make successful demands for shorter working hours. The first of these successes came in NSW where in September 1855, the Operative Stonemasons' Society managed to win an eight-hour day. While the building trades had achieved the eight-hour day early (Sydney and Melbourne by 1858 and many others by 1891), a 40-hour week was not universal in Australia until 1948. In 1920 the Commonwealth Court granted a 44-hour week to engineers and timber workers, and in the judgements in these cases, it was implied that in future 44 hours might be taken as the normal standard. In 1922, however, the full Bench of the Arbitration Court stated that a worsening of the economic conditions compelled them to make 48 hours the standard once again. After massive and sometimes bitter conflict the timber workers had the 44- hour week restored. In 1942 the timber workers sought to have the 44-hour week spread over five days instead of six days, which was finally achieved in 1944. On the January 1, 1948, after many strikes and protests the timber workers achieved a 40-hour working week. The 38-hour week however, was not achieved until protests and strikes in the mid-1980s. Thanks to the 500 workers who attended the 1999 SA Labor Day Rally and March.

Back to index page