May Day’s origins remind us of the power of organised workers

May Day march in Melbourne in 2012.

This issue of Green Left Weekly will hit the streets on May 1, an important day for the labour movement around the world.

Here, May Day marches and events around the country will form part of the ACTU’s “Change the Rules” campaign. These 12 days of action will culminate on May 9 in Melbourne, when workers from across all unions will take part in what promises to be the biggest weekday industrial rally in years.

In the US, May 1 marks the date in 1886 when about 190,000 workers went on strike around the country and 150,000 more threatened to strike in support of the demand for the eight-hour day.

In Australia, it was 30 years earlier, on April 21, 1856, that stonemasons working on the Old Quadrangle building at Melbourne University downed tools and marched to Parliament House, along with other building workers, to demand the eight-hour day. Following their campaign, the eight-hour day was introduced in Melbourne for workers employed on public works without loss of pay.

Several months earlier, stonemasons in Sydney successfully organised, agitated for, and gained the eight-hour day.

May Day, and the historic struggle for the eight-hour day, reminds us that workers’ rights are not achieved by the stroke of a pen, or the generosity of politicians or employers. They are won through struggle.

On a more sombre note, they also remind us that our rights can be eroded unless they are protected and enforced. In the reality of Australian working life today, the eight-hour day is slipping further away for both the underemployed, who struggle for more hours, and workers in mining, the trades, transport, postal, education and other professions who regularly clock up more than 50 hours of work each week.

While the wages share of national wealth in Australia is at its lowest point in 50 years, profits are booming. Australia now has 33 billionaires but wages are stagnating. In the so-called “lucky country” the wealth gap between rich and poor is widening.

Continuous economic growth in Australia has not delivered an increase in real wages, or the standard of living for working people — just the opposite.

May Day is not only about the struggle of working people, it is also about the need to move beyond capitalism — a system that survives on war, exploitation, environmental destruction and oppression — to a future where humanity and ecology take priority over profits at any cost.

You can check out when your local May Day rally and Change the Rules event on the calendar page opposite.

Green Left is proudly on the side of workers, but we need more than a few people on our side too. Our fighting fund target of $200,000 is achievable — but only with your help.

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