By Vik Sharma, State Secretary
As many heroes sang:
“Eight hours to work,
Eight hours to play,
Eight hours to sleep,
Eight bob a day.
A fair day’s work,
For a fair day’s pay.”
Over 160 years ago, Victorian workers rose up to fight for their right to an 8-hour work day.
On 21 April 1856 stonemasons working on the University of Melbourne downed tools and marched to the Belvedere Hotel, demanding a radical improvement in working conditions not yet won anywhere else in the world: a limited 8-hour working day, with no loss of pay.
This milestone win was celebrated on 12 May that year with workers coming together to march and celebrate, kicking off the annual May Day celebrations we know today. This is also the history behind the Labour Day public holiday that Victorians enjoy.
Initially only a minority of workers, mainly in the building trades, won the 8-hour day. Most workers, including women and children, generally worked longer hours for less pay. It was not until January 1948 that the Commonwealth Arbitration Court approved a 40-hour, five-day working week for all Australians.
The fight for work-life balance unfortunately did not end in 1856, nor in 1948, but the lessons of this fight live on. Unity amongst workers is where our strength lies.
Today workers face new challenges with their working conditions. New technology and the gig-economy have created jobs and roles that were not foreseen years ago. These have brought new challenges for workers safety and rights.
In 2023, we are seeing more and more workers experiencing burnout. Capitalism has forced us to contend with an increasingly complex and fragmented workforce.
Unions worldwide are battling with an increase in shift work and extended hours, understaffing, rostering issues, inflexible work arrangements, casualisation and attacks on job security.
In light of the new pressures on workers and the rising cost of living, unions have continued to fight for a shorter 36-hour week with no loss of pay for all industries. This campaign continues to grow after its success in the building industry, and hopefully one day we will see celebrations for the four-day work week.
May Day is an important day for unionists to come together and celebrate our wins and solidarity, as well as to strengthen our demands for workers rights and conditions.
This year, May Day celebrations are being held at 1pm on Sunday 7 May, out the front of Trades Hall on Lygon Street, Carlton.
If you’re keen to join the RTBU contingent, let us know at email@example.com.
Prior to May Day celebrations, like every year, Victorian Trades Hall Council will host a memorial service to remember those Victorians who lost their lives at work.
International Workers Memorial Day is a globally observed day where unions, workers and their families join together to remember those who have been killed or injured at work.
On the Trades Hall building is a plaque in remembrance of Tony Massaria, an RTBU Organiser who lost his life on the job.
This day is an important reminder to all in the union movement that we must continue our fight to ensure that workers’ health and safety are protected.
Every work-related death is preventable.
If you’d like to show your solidarity, you can join the RTBU at 10:30 am on Friday 28 April, at Argyle Square in Carlton.
The ceremony will include a minute’s silence at 11am and an opportunity to lay wreaths.
For those who cannot attend in person, we suggest observing a minute’s silence in your workplace at 11am, Friday 28 April.
Remember the dead, fight like hell for the living.