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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2469


Mr HOLLIS(3.50) —Today is 1 May, or May Day. May Day as we know it today has its origins in the industrial cities of nineteenth century America. In 1884 a conference of United States and Canadian trade unions set 1 May 1886 as the day on which to commence strike action in pursuit of their goal for an eight-hour working day. At that time many workers were working as much as 15 or 18 hours a day-from sunrise to sunset.

In Australia, by comparison, we already had the eight-hour working day. This right had been won as early as 1855 by the Operative Stonemasons Society in Sydney, and soon afterwards by similar building trades unions in Melbourne and Sydney. The right was not easily won. It came as a result of strike action and processions, followed by negotiation. Indeed, I might add that, in the entire history of industrial relations, only very rarely have important rights been won by workers through negotiation where that negotiation was not first preceded by some demonstration of worker strength and unity of purpose.

Honourable members might be interested in the words of the slogan used by the stonemasons in their struggle for the eight-hour day. It was:

Eight hours to work, eight hours to play, eight hours to sleep, and eight bob a day.

This slogan became the basis of the American trade unions' call for a just working day when they took up the fight towards the end of the nineteenth century. The main centre of the North American struggle was the industrial city of Chicago. Here too the struggle was not easily won. On that first industrial workers' May Day in 1886, 25,000 workers took to the streets in that city. Employers and government were alarmed and called out the police. On 3 May the police attacked a meeting of striking workers outside the McCormick reaper works. Six workers were killed and many wounded. The following day another four workers and seven policemen were killed in Chicago's Haymarket Square. Eventually four labour leaders were arrested, tried and hanged. They became the unions' martyred dead and symbols of the struggle.

The custom of holding workers' demonstrations and celebrations on May Day quickly spread from America to Europe and Australia. May Day was first celebrated by Australian workers at Barcaldine in Queensland in 1891. The early 1890s were years of struggle between unions, who were determined to hang on to their hard won rights, and many employers who spoke openly of their determination to crush the unions, or else replace them with tame ones.

In 1891 the focus of this conflict shifted to Queensland. Is it not fascinating how history has a habit of repeating itself? In Queensland, the squatters were preparing to break the Shearers Union by bringing in non-union labour from the south. The Queensland Government sent out police and armed troops. The shearers were arrested and gaoled. In Brisbane at that same time, mindful that shearers were marching in the face of the troopers' guns, Henry Lawson was writing `Freedom On the Wallaby', with its famous lines:

So we must fly a rebel flag

As others did before us, . . .

Sadly, the shearers' struggle was lost on that occasion and their leaders were gaoled. But the struggle for unionism and better working conditions has continued. Today Australian workers face many of the same problems as those faced by the shearers of nineteenth century Queensland. There are many persons, employers and organisations-not the least being the Premier of Queensland and his Government-who would seek to cripple the union movement and to replace unionists with scab labour. This is not the way ahead. This is a recipe for industrial disaster. There is another way to go, and I can say with some pride that there are workers and trade unionists in the Wollongong and Illawarra area who are showing the way. This way is based on greater worker and union participation in industry. Industrial relations today must be viewed within the context of today's world. The ways of the New Right and the Premier of Queensland are the ways of last century. It is time they were forsaken forever.

Let me conclude on a note of warning to those antiquarians who refuse to move out of the nineteenth century and learn their lessons from history. What the workers of the world are celebrating today, and on each and every May Day, is their strength, their unity of purpose and their firm resolve to struggle in the face of persecution and adversity. Time and again they have proved that they can be pushed just so far, and no further. They are marching today to celebrate just this.