Labour Day / May Day
Labour Day in Queensland and May Day in the Northern Territory hold a significant place in union history.
The annual event is both an important reminder not to forget those who fought hard for decent and fair working conditions in Australia, as well as a celebration of their success and a chance to renew our commitment to ensuring a better future for all.
The foundation of a day to mark the struggle and achievement of workers stems from the May Day Haymarket riots in Chicago on 4 May 1884, which resulted in the death and wounding of some in attendance and the ultimate wrongful conviction and execution of four unionists.
In 1889, a proposal was made to establish a day to recognise the anniversary of the Chicago protests.
As a result, 1 May each year is known as International Workers’ Day.
Labour Day/May Day provides us an opportunity to gather each year to acknowledge and celebrate the struggle, collective action and strength shown by our fellow unionists throughout history leading to the improved wages and conditions we have today.
It is also a reminder that we must stay vigilant and continue to work as a collective to protect and improve those conditions going into the future.
2019 marked a special Labour Day/May Day celebration for our union, as we led the march together with the Finance Sector Union (FSU) in honour of our shared centenary year.
Marching in 2019 was Life Member Maria Heenan, who has been attending Labour Day celebrations with our union for 25 years.
“I am proud to attend the annual Labour Day events, and I encourage my fellow union members to join in celebrating the history and narrative around it,” Maria said.
“We celebrate Labour Day to remember and pay tribute to the proud tradition of workers campaigning for the conditions that we enjoy today.
“Our attendance is a testament to that sacrifice and shared sense of fairness; it reminds people that we must never give in to oppression in the workplace and we need to stand our ground.
“There is an increasing need at the moment to draw attention to the politics of fear and greed that work against us, and Labour Day offers an opportune time for us to unite against this.”
The origins of the celebration of Labour Day/May Day in Australia began in 1856, when stonemasons at the University of Melbourne marched to Parliament House to push for an eight hour working day.
As a result, an agreement was reached with their employers for a 48 hour week and this led to Australian workers’ right to an eight hour work day.
A victory march was held in Melbourne in May of that year and each year after that.
In 1856, the new work regulations were recognised in NSW, followed by Queensland in 1858 and South Australia in 1873.
In Queensland, the antecedent of Labour Day began in Barcaldine in 1891 after the Shearer’s Strike was declared in response to the actions of the Pastoralists’ Federal Council who sought to increase profits by employing nonunion shearers on individual contracts for lower rates of pay.
Union workers established strike camps in towns near shearing sheds, with one of the largest camps near Barcaldine.
On 1 May 1891, more than 1,300 striking workers marched through the town as part of the dispute – marking a historic event for Australian workers.
In 1901 the first Monday of each May was declared a public holiday in Queensland and was formally recognised as Labour Day from 1912.
In the Northern Territory, the celebration is known as May Day, and is also marked by a public holiday on the first Monday in May of each year.