Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

Eight-hour day movement

On 21 April 1856, stonemasons building the University of Melbourne ceased work and marched to Parliament House, gathering fellow stonemasons on the way. Their demand was for the eight-hour day — eight hours labour, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest. Once won by the stonemasons, the eight-hour day became the goal of the fledgling labour movement as well as its central celebration. Celebrations often lasted a week and included balls, dinners, trips to the country and a procession.

In Melbourne, processions commenced at the Victorian Trades Hall in Carlton. With banners, floats, regalia and Sunday-best clothes, trade unionists from the old skilled trades such as the Operative Bakers' Union joined newer unions of less skilled workers such as the Female Confectioners' Union to parade through the streets and celebrate in the Carlton Gardens with their families. Such processions attracted thousands of spectators in both Melbourne and Sydney.

Unionists displayed their ideals and their pride in their skills by carrying banners in procession on horse-drawn drays. It is estimated that there were at least 200 identifiable banners in Victoria from the 1850s until the demise of the celebration in the 1930s due to the Depression and World War II. After the war, most artefacts associated with the eight-hour day movement were either lost from sight or destroyed.

In the mid-1970s UMA began collecting trade union records from Victorian unions to develop its research collection on industrial relations, simultaneously uncovering artefacts associated with the eight-hour day movement, including the Operative Bakers' Union loaves and regalia.

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