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The importance of Labour Day

In 1951, a letter to the Courier Mail asked why we still had Labour Day because the 8 hour day had been won. Imagine if we had given up improving conditions in the 1950s – when there was still a 44 hour week and only two weeks annual leave.

This Labour Day provides us with the opportunity to reflect upon the achievements of union members and our supporters in the community and their ability to change the course of history.

Queenslanders have always celebrated Labour Day in May, despite the Newman Government moving the public holiday to October. Even though the Labour Day public holiday will not return to May until 2016, Queensland unions and their community supporters will celebrate Labour Day across the weekend of May 2 and 3, with the big Brisbane march commencing on Sunday May 3 at 10am.

Changing the Labour Day public holiday was a petty vindictive decision and pay-back for the union movement’s opposition to job cuts and for reflecting the wider concerns of the community.

The case was never made out as to why such retribution was necessary, however, this decision demonstrated the nature of the Newman Government. They were willing to annoy and alienate almost anyone for any reason, or in this case, no reason at all. Early on, those of us in the Labour movement thought it was just their traditional hatred of the union movement. But it became apparent that the Newman Government had little regard for the people of Queensland, not just their perceived political enemies.

The Newman government had no regard for Labour Day’s special place in Queensland history. The first march was held in 1891 during the Shearer’s strike in Barcaldine. The first Monday in May was chosen in 1901 when it was proclaimed a public holiday.

Labour Day recognises the vast majority of the community who go about their jobs with little or no recognition. It also demonstrates the power that labour (with a u) holds and the contribution that ordinary workers make to society and the economy.

Research shows more than 60 per cent of the Australian community thinks unions are important for working people. It reflects that union values are community values. People care about the same things that drive unions – getting a fair go.

Much has been achieved for the wider community since the introduction of the 8 hour day. The list of achievements ranges from the various forms of paid leave (including maternity leave); universal superannuation; equal pay for women and shorter working hours. These are conditions which everyone in the community now enjoys.

It is also timely to reflect upon decent penalty rates and minimum rates, so relied upon by many Australian workers to maintain a decent standard of living.

None of the improvements to conditions of employment were achieved without struggle and without the commitment of union members and community support. It would also be naive to think that these conditions will continue to remain in place without vigilance and activism. There is little doubt that the Abbott Government would be well disposed towards stripping back employment conditions and rights, if the 2007 federal election was not so fresh in their collective memory.

Labour Day celebrates the achievements of workers within, and for, their community. It’s a time to recognise how this progress has benefited Australian society as a whole. Ticking off achievements like the 8 hour day is satisfying but there remains much hard work ahead together to ensure we continue to live in a civil society.