Labour Day and May Day

The first Labour Day procession, Dunedin, 1890 (click for image credit)

The first Labour Day procession, Dunedin, 1890 (click for image credit)

As our readers may have noticed, this working week is a short one, following on from the welcome Monday break for Labour Day. Many New Zealanders may be unaware of Labour Day’s origins in the workers’ struggle for an eight-hour working day.

Samuel Parnell, an English carpenter who was an early Pākehā settler in New Zealand, was one of the first eight-hour day advocates. In 1840, soon after arriving in Wellington, Parnell refused to work for more than eight hours a day on his contracts. At that time the standard work day for British workers was at least 10 hours, with Sunday as the only day of rest. The eight-hour principle was adopted by many workers in Wellington and spread to other parts of the colony. However, workers such as shop assistants, farm labourers and domestic servants continued working extremely long hours.

Agitation for the eight-hour day spread throughout the industrialised world in the 1880s. On 3 May 1886 a workers’ eight-hour strike meeting in Chicago was fired on by police. The following day, at an indignation protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a bomb was thrown, killing and wounding a number of policemen. Although the bomb thrower was never identified, eight anarchist labour activists were arrested, charged and convicted of conspiracy to murder. Four were executed, while one committed suicide in jail.

At an 1889 international labour congress in Paris, 1 May was adopted as a date to both demonstrate for an eight-hour working day and to commemorate the ‘Haymarket martyrs’. Since 1890 the celebration of May Day as the workers’ day has been adopted in a large number of countries. In New Zealand, however, Labour Day is held on the fourth Monday in October.

New Zealand’s October Labour Day also has its origins in the 1880s eight-hour movement. In 1890 the Maritime Council, consisting of the powerful transport and mining unions, called for a ‘labour demonstration day’. The day was to celebrate workers’ trades and to promote the eight-hour day. The date chosen, 28 October 1890, was the first anniversary of the Maritime Council’s foundation. The council itself did not survive the year, being destroyed in the collapse of the 1890 maritime strike. Despite this set-back, the Labour Day demonstrations were a huge success in many parts of the country. Large processions were held in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington, with the 80-year-old Samuel Parnell leading the Wellington parade.

In the 1890s Labour Day was not an official holiday, although government offices were closed on the day. Richard Seddon’s Liberal government passed a law in 1899 declaring the second Wednesday in October as the Labour Day public holiday. In 1910 this was ‘Mondayised’, with the Labour Day holiday falling on the fourth Monday in October. While a Labour Day holiday had been gained, the union struggle to extend the eight-hour day to all workers continued.

The tinsmiths and sheet metalworkers float in a Labour Day parade, Christchurch, 1900 (click for image credit)

The tinsmiths and sheet metalworkers float in a Labour Day parade, Christchurch, 1900 (click for image credit)

In the early years there was widespread participation in Labour Day events, which were generally organised by committees of trade unionists and their supporters. Events included parades, with banners and floats representing the particular unions and with workers dressing in their work gear or carrying the tools of their trades. The parades were followed by large picnics, often accompanied by brass bands and sporting competitions. Wellington’s regular Labour Day picnic at Days Bay attracted thousands of people, while Canterbury Trades and Labour Council’s 1913 picnic at Wainoni Park was attended by a crowd of over 8,000.

By the 1910s many of the Labour Day processions were becoming dominated by floats and banners advertising local businesses. The emphasis was also shifting to the social, rather than political aspects of Labour Day. Some of the more militant unions and socialist activists started to call for May Day, rather than Labour Day, to be recognised as the workers’ day. There had already been some-small scale marking of May Day. On 1 May 1906 the small New Zealand Socialist Party had been able to fill His Majesty’s Theatre in Wellington. The audience heard a number of speakers extol the merits of a socialist future, in addition to the Socialist Orchestra playing the ‘Gloria’ from Mozart’s ‘12th Mass’.

In the mid-1920s Labour Day activities went into decline, but few New Zealand workers marked May Day in its place. The miners’ unions were an exception; they observed May Day as an unofficial holiday and, from 1937, had a May Day holiday written into their employment awards. The 1930s depression saw May Day being used as a day of protest by workers and the unemployed. In Christchurch, on May Day 1932, over 10,000 people marched to Cranmer Square to express their concern over the ongoing crisis.

In recent times unions’ marking of May Day has been relatively low key, although various social events continue to be held on the day. Labour Day for most people is simply another public holiday. It is notable, however, that Christchurch trade unions have continued the tradition of the Labour Day picnic, combining entertainment with a social message.

I hope everyone had a fine Labour Day holiday and express my thanks to the pioneer labour activists who made it possible.

Cheers for the day off! : the Eight Hour Day Committee, 1890. Samuel Parnell is in the centre of the front row (click for image credit)

Cheers for the day off! : the Eight Hour Day Committee, 1890, including Samuel Parnell in the centre of the front row (click for image credit)

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