The Eight Hour Day 1856-2006
On 21 April 1856, following negotiations between building tradesmen and contractors, and with the approval of the colonial government, an eight hour day was introduced into the building trades in Melbourne. The movement was led by the stonemasons who argued that eight hours a day was appropriate in the Australian heat. It would also give them time to improve their 'social and moral condition'.
Two employers, with substantial contracts for public buildings at the Western Market and Parliament House, resisted the new working hours agreement. In response to their intransigency, the stonemasons lead a protest march from University of Melbourne to Parliament House, calling out workers at building sites on the way. Within a fortnight the contractors had given way.
Melbourne's building workers, generally without loss of pay or other conditions, had gained an unprecedented widespread and sustainable victory.
Their achievement established a national and international standard to which working people everywhere could aspire. It was widely celebrated as a world first and formed the basis of Australia's reputation as a 'workingman's paradise'.
However, only a minority of workers initially won the Eight Hour Day. Most workers, including women and children, generally worked longer hours for less pay. It was common to work twelve to sixteen hours a day.