The meaning of May Day

This year’s annual celebration of May Day is a timely reminder of the significant contribution Australian workers have made to the international industrial relations landscape, writes IEU Organiser, Pat Devery.

On 18 August 1855, stonemasons working at Sydney’s Holy Trinity Church walked off the job in protest at the refusal of employers to accept demands for an eight hour working day.

The employers, forced to the negotiation table, finally agreed to the first in a series of hard fought victories leading to Australia boasting one of the most progressive industrial environments in the world at the dawn of the 20th century. We find 153 years later Sydney’s train crews are routinely required to work extended overtime hours to prevent the meltdown of the network due to timetable deficiencies and inadequate employment policies.

IEU members joined in the May Day March and Family Fun Day on Sunday 6 May to commemorate the significant achievements of previous generations while at the same time rallying today’s workers against the clear and present industrial dangers they face.

IEU members in Catholic systemic schools have just emerged from a protracted battle with employers over their reasonable call to simply include the right to arbitration in their agreement.

An 88% ‘no’ vote during our protected action saw IEU members stare down the, at times, misleading and belligerent attitude of the employers, allowing us to win an industrial right denied to many Australian workers, including some of our members.

The fact that this claim was so vigorously resisted by the employers is both edifying and concerning, and points to the broader agenda of stripping workers of their rights.

The Fair Work Commission’s recent treatment of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union is a timely reminder that industrial conditions secured over many generations can be easily lost. The Commission’s ruling, prohibiting the strike on the grounds that it would cause too great a risk to Sydney’s economy and safety, lead the ACTU’s Sally McManus to declare ‘the basic right to strike in Australia is very nearly dead’.

McManus went on to explain, ‘Rail workers followed every single rule and law, and still the minister of the day can get an order to cancel bans on working excessive overtime.’

Celebrations in

Newcastle, Wollongong, Canberra and Sydney

The rallying cry for this year’s May Day march will be Change the Rules in support of the ACTU’s campaign to fix our broken industrial relations system.

After decades of neo conservative policies and failed economic theories it is time to fix the tax system, address wage theft, stop reductions in pay, strengthen insecure working conditions, change the broken industrial relations rules, and call out the rising inequality which sees the richest 1% of Australians owning more wealth than 70% of the nation.

Australia has a long and proud history when it comes to industrial rights, leading the world in areas such as the eight hour day and the minimum wage. These, and many other entitlements such as the provision of sick leave, superannuation, long service, parental leave, personal and carers leave and annual leave have all been won by committed unionists in the face of stiff resistance.

Many of our long term IEU members will recall a time when long service leave was lost and accrued sick leave was lost simply from moving from one Catholic diocesan employer to another. My own mother worked for nearly 30 years before she became eligible for LSL. She also reared six children with no access to maternity leave.

The conditions which many of us have enjoyed throughout our working life may not be available for the young people we teach and those just entering our profession. Do we really want this to happen on our watch? IEU members are encouraged to come out and support this movement which goes to the very heart of what we do as workers in an educational setting. Too often we hear the platitudes from employers and politicians claiming to promote the interests of working families and espousing family values while enacting policies which tear at the very fabric of our community.

"Eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’ was a fair and just cause to rally around 150 years ago. The cause is no less just and, unfortunately, no less urgent today. The system is broken, let’s get out and fix it!"

Do you have an industrial story of your own to tell younger members? Email

Timeline of some significant industrial events

1840: Wellington (NZ) Carpenters win an eight hour day
1855: Sydney stonemasons win an eight hour day
1856: Melbourne stonemasons win an eight hour day
1868: US Congress enacts eight hour day law
1907: Harvester Case outlining the minimum wage – world first
1916: Eight hour day to all workers in NSW and Victoria
1948: 40 hour day, five day working week for all Australians
1988: NGS Super Fund established (IEU a founding member)
1993: Compulsory Superannuation in Australia
Pat Devery