Tag Archives: socialism

Never speak about the lower classes

Thinking about the Great Strike of 1917 and Australia’s convict heritage, had me thinking about The Luck of the Irish by Babette Smith. This is a great book to add to your reading list if you are interested in colonial Australia.

In 1835 the ship The Hive sank off the New South Wales coast, south of Jervis Bay. On board were 250 Irish convicts. Miraculously all survived. Babette tracked what happened to the survivors and found in their personal histories much that explains the Australian way of life.

One of Babette’s arguments is that Australia’s egalitarianism was founded in the work practices and attitudes that were required because the government, in the early years of the colony, were completely dependent on the convict workforce to sustain the colony. Babette explains it like this:

The penal colonies created a dilemma for leaders who were faced with extracting productivity from workers who had no predisposition to cooperation, let alone obedience. In fact, the opposite. They were likely to respond with subterranean ridicule or dumb insolence to someone in command. And they could counter harsh commands or coercion by reducing their productivity. While the lash might punish them, it could not deliver a workplace result.

According to Babette the desire for classlessness continued after the convict era. In 1902, Henry Montgomery, an English bishop wrote a manual for clergyman heading to the colonies. His advice included:

Never speak about “the lower classes”. Australians don’t like it.

Do you agree Australia’s egalitarianism is founded in Australia’s convict heritage?

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Chain gang, Hobart

 

Centenary of the Great Strike 1917

Today, marks the centenary of the Great Strike of 1917. According to Joan Beaumont  in Broken Nation the Australian eastern states erupted into industrial warfare in August 1917.

The catalyst was a dispute in the New South Wales Government Tramways Workshops in Randwick, Sydney. The railway management eager to cut costs introduced a new card system designed to measure the cost and performance of each worker. In response about 6,000 railway and tramway men stopped work on 2 August.

Within five weeks, almost 70,000 workers, across three states and numerous industries had joined the industrial action. Despite this initial energy, by September and October strikes at individual workplaces were broken and the union movement were left significantly diminished.

As Joan explains, the historical importance of the Great Strike of 1917 has largely been forgotten, overshadowed by the stronger story of the Anzac legend. Its centenary today is a good reminder that the search for historical truth is not always found in the headlines of history.

Do you think other events have been overshadowed by the story of the Anzac legend? How would you describe the Anzac legend?

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Victorian Government railway engineering works, 1879

1856, Winning the Eight Hour Day

Work-life balance is an enduring concern. Time has always been precious for working people. May Day 1890, the first time, marked the international campaign to deliver the Eight Hour Day to working people.

Industrialisation had ended the relaxed pace of rural working life for many people. Instead work hours were long and rigid. Dividing the day into eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure and eight hours of rest seemed to be a fair solution, for those who wanted something better.

Assisted emigrants to Australia wanted something better and were at the right place and the right time to achieve it. Almost forty years before the first May Day in 1890, the Eight Hour Day was won by Australian workers.

If you want to know more, a book for your reading list is The Australian Colonists by Ken Inglis. Ken’s classic book covers the social history of Australia from 1788 to 1870. This is the book to read to start understanding how people lived in colonial Australia.

As explained in The Australian Colonists, in early 1856, the stonemasons of Melbourne resolved not to work more than eight hours a day, six days a week. Two employers held out. On 21 April 1856, the stonemasons stopped work to protest against the employers. The workers marched to Eastern Hill, others joined in, until about 700 were marching. The stonemasons were clear they would not work for any employer who held out.

Within a few weeks nearly all workers in the building trades in Melbourne won the Eight Hour Day without any loss of wages, and it was extended to other jobs, including quarrymen, saddlers and harness-makers.

In Melbourne the anniversary of the 1856 protest became a major celebration and prominent reminder for working people of the continuing fight to improve working conditions. The day’s festivities included a toast: the Eight Hours System, may its physical, intellectual, moral and social advantages be extended to every member of the human family.

Does anyone know why getting the Eight Hour Day was called obtaining the boon?

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Eight Hour Day Trade Union banner

History repeats

Thinking about May Day 1890, the first time had me thinking about Karl Marx, who did a lot of thinking about history. May 5, next year will be the 200th year anniversary of his birth. How will he be remembered?

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
— Karl Marx

Agree or disagree?

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May Day: Crowd watching parade celebrating Eight Hour Day, 1896