Labour Day: A Sad Celebration
A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
2nd October 2009
Return to the articles index.
This weekend is a sad celebration. Sad because it is a holiday that has lost its meaning. Sad because the victory it celebrates has been lost in our affluence.
It was called ‘Eight Hour Day’ because it marked the historic nineteenth century battle to reduce working hours. The cry was for eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours recreation. The unionists’ plea was not for more money but for more time. This was to create some balance in work and life. It led to the forty-hour week. Over time it has come to be known as ‘Labour Day’.
Australia and New Zealand led the world in the victory of workers’ rights to rest and recreation. Sydney was at the forefront of this campaign. In 1855 stonemasons were in great demand, as major building programmes were undertaken using the newly found wealth of the gold rushes. Two church buildings, Holy Trinity Millers Point (the Garrison church) and the Mariners’ Church (the Seafarers Centre) were the scene of a two-week strike that initiated the change in work-rest balance. Up until then workers were usually required to work ten hour days Monday to Friday, and eight hours on Saturday (fifty-eight hours a week).
An annual march and picnic on the first weekend in October to celebrate the initial victory and promote the ongoing eight-hour campaign commenced in 1871. It was not till the 1890s that the eight-hour day became widely accepted across most industries. The forty-hour week did not come into effect until the mid-twentieth century.
In 1885 the first public holiday to celebrate Eight Hour Day was held. The man responsible for establishing this public holiday was the trade unionist and member for Balmain, Jacob Garrard. Mr Garrard was a keen Methodist who joined the Salvation Army in 1896. He is another example of the Evangelical influence that lies behind the labour movement of our society. Historians and subsequent generations have routinely ignored this influence, though Kevin Rudd pointed to it on his way to becoming a Labor Leader who professes Christian belief.
Christians are, and should be, concerned about the working conditions of our society, especially the plight of the economically and politically weaker members of our community. This is not a breach of state-church relationship. This is the active participation of Christians in a democratic society. Today the battle to establish a work-life balance has returned for many people, though it is a different battle to the mid-nineteenth century.
In 2007 the Relationship Forum of Australia reported the shifting pressure in work-life balance. 22% of the workforce are working more than 50 hours a week. 30% of the workforce are working on weekends – a percentage only exceeded by Italy! Over 60% work after 6pm or before 8am on weekdays. The proportion of two-income families has increased from 42% in 1981 to 60% in 2007. While the majority of people may be working less than forty hours a week, families are working longer and many are working at more unsocial and unpredictable times.
There has also developed three different kinds of employees, who have quite different reasons for working long hours.
Some people make a living out of their hobby and pleasure. The sports professionals and musicians, the artists and academics and, yes, the ministers of the gospel. These people do not work according to hours or for money but because of their passion. Many people in professional life have a passion that leads to imbalance in work-rest patterns. Many teachers, doctors and farmers live for their work and ignore the hours that it takes them. That is their choice, though wisdom should remind them that the graveyard is full of indispensible people and God himself rested on the seventh day.
There are also some people who do not work but rather have a career. Work for them is the principal place for personal development. Their primary motivation is career advancement. They are not committed to the work itself – they will easily move from one industry to another. Nor are they principally committed either to serve their employer or to provide for their customers/clients – these ultimately are only a means to an end. Nor are they committed to their family or community – they will jump at the chance of advancement overseas or interstate irrespective of the dislocation it causes their family and friends. These people will work whatever hours are required for their personal advancement. Their own ambition is their bondage to long hours.
There are also some people who still work for money to live on. This is not a bad or unworthy motive for work. The Bible lays upon us the responsibility to provide for ourselves and our families (2 Thessalonians 3, 1 Timothy 5). The person who labours to provide for their family, and is not a burden on other people, is to be commended and encouraged. But unfortunately the desire of an affluent, hedonistic and materialistic society is to have these people available to work for us seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day. Limiting the hours to forty makes no difference in the inconvenience that is laid upon them. If the only jobs available are at night or on weekends, the poor have little choice but to leave their families and friends in order to work. Often these people live furthest from their workplace and their unsociable time of work means very long hours from home. Too often they have to rely upon overtime pay to make a decent living – again adding to the hours away from home, rest and recreation. Add to this the rising house prices that have been fed by and led to the need for two incomes in a family to pay the mortgage, and the ‘working family’ finds real tension in the work-life balance. The steady encroachment of work on weekends has not been sufficiently resisted by the present Labor movement.
So this weekend is a sad celebration. We have largely forgotten the costly battle won by our forbears, and in our pursuit of wealth we are voluntarily putting ourselves back into the bondage that they worked so hard to liberate us from.