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Home > News > 2017 > April > Why do we celebrate Labour Day?

Why do we celebrate Labour Day?

Topics : Labour Day

IEUA-QNT Assistant Secretary Rebecca Sisson writes on the significance of the day and its place in union history.

On Monday 1 May 2017, union members, their families, and the broader community will come together to celebrate Labour Day / May Day – a day steeped in historical significance for workers.


Then and now: The Eight Hour Procession held in Brisbane in 1893 and Labour Day marchers walking down Wickham Street in 2016. 

Labour Day in Queensland and May Day in the Northern Territory has a long history both internationally and in Australia dating back more than 130 years.

In Chicago, the May Day Haymarket event of 4 May 1884, which resulted in the death and wounding of some in attendance and the ultimate wrongful conviction and execution of four alleged union agitators, provided the foundation for what we know now as Labour Day.

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.

In Australia, the antecedent of Labour Day began in Barcaldine in 1891.

In January 1891 the Shearer’s Strike was declared in response to the actions of the Pastoralists’ Federal Council who sought to increase profits by employing non-union 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 1300 striking workers marched through the town as part of the dispute.

Last year marked the 125th anniversary of that historic event.

In Queensland, the proclamation of a public holiday on the first Monday of May occurred in 1901 with this day formally recognised as Labour Day from 1912.

Since that time, the community has come together each year to celebrate the achievements of workers and recognise that only continued vigilance, collective action and struggle can keep and improve the wages and conditions won by the union members who came before us.

In 2012, the Newman LNP State Government announced that Labour Day would be moved to October.

This decision, made without consultation, ignored the long history of Labour Day in May in Queensland. Labour Day was moved only in name, for union members continued to gather and march and celebrate at the beginning of May for those three years until Labour Day was returned to its rightful place by the Palaszczuk Labor Government in 2016.

Labour Days over the next three years have an additional significance for workers and the IEUA-QNT in particular.

This year’s march is a chance for all workers to stand collectively against a move to undermine one long-held principle of fair work – the payment of penalty rates for employees who work weekends or unsociable hours.

The principle that workers should receive compensation for missing time with family or friends has been a fundamental since before the 1940s.

Next year marks the 125th anniversary of the first Labour Day march in Brisbane.

Brisbane is still the location of Australia’s biggest Labour Day march.

Meanwhile, 2019 marks the centenary of the first iteration of our union: the Queensland Assistant Masters’ Association.

IEUA-QNT Labour Day celebrations in 2019 will be part of a broader calendar of events marking this significant occasion.

Many Labour Day/May Day celebrations come with free food, drinks, rides, music and activities.

It really is a great day for the whole family.

Members and their families are encouraged to attend their local 2017 Labour Day/May Day event.

Click here for further information on Labour Day, including details of your local celebration.

This article was extracted from the April 2017 edition of Independent Voice.

Authorised by Terry Burke, Independent Education Union of Australia – Queensland & Northern Territory Branch, Brisbane.