Monday, April 21, 2008

The origins of the eight-hour working day

Today according to Australian Eastern Standard Time when this item was posted
1856 One of the world's first eight-hour working day processions was held, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Banner from the Melbourne, 1856 demonstration

In March 1856, stonemasons working on the University of Melbourne held a public meeting and agreed that from April 21 they would work for only eight hours a day. Each working day should be one-third sleep, one-third work and one-third leisure. Their goal was achieved in exactly one month, on the following May 21.

It was not a new concept; Robert Owen (1771 - 1858) had raised the demand for a ten-hour day as early as 1810, and instituted it in his socialist enterprise at New Lanark, Scotland. As early as 1817, he had formulated the goal of the eight-hour day and coined the slogan "Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest". In New Zealand in 1840, carpenter Samuel Parnell refused to work more than eight hours a day when erecting a store for merchant George Hunter.

On April 21, there was a march to Parliament House as Members of the Stonemasons Society gathered other members of the building trade. The movement in Melbourne was led by veteran chartists and mason James Stephens (1821 - '89), TW Vine and James Galloway. The government agreed that workers employed on public works should enjoy an eight-hour day with no loss of pay and stonemasons celebrated with a holiday and procession on Monday, May 12, 1856, when about 700 people marched with 19 trades involved.

Plaque in Quadrangle, University of Melbourne

By 1858, the eight-hour day was firmly established in the building industry, and by 1860 the eight-hour day was fairly widely observed in the State of Victoria. From 1879, the eight-hour day was a public holiday in that state. The initial success in Melbourne led to the decision to organise a movement, to actively spread the eight-hour idea and secure the condition generally. Australia became the first country in the world to legislate for an eight-hour day, and each state still has a public holiday for Eight Hour Day (sometimes called 'Labor Day').

By 1864, the eight-hour day became a central demand of parts of the American labor movement, namely in Chicago, but it was slow to eventuate in that country, with the United Mine Workers winning an eight-hour day in 1898. As late as January 5, 1914, the Ford Motor Company took the radical step of doubling pay to $5 a day, and cut shifts from nine hours to eight, moves that were not popular with rival companies ...

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