Once upon a time for workers

Once upon a time, more than a century ago, stonemasons working on new Melbourne University buildings walked off the job in their campaign to win an eight hour working day.

Many workers today – whether casuals or professionals – would love such a life today.

In the early 1800s Victorian workers generally worked 14 hours a day for six days of the week. But in April 1856 the workers won an eight hour day and commemorated the win by holding an annual march from the Carlton Gardens to the Cremorne Gardens in Richmond – an event which unions and workers marked for 95 years. In 1934 a Labor Government made the day a paid holiday but the last eight hour day march was held in 1951,

What replaced it in 1955 was the Moomba Festival and Parade still held today.

The change from a march in solidarity and triumph to a rather garish parade featuring ‘monarchs’, floats, consumerism and public viewing, rather than participation, could be said to indicate how far we have come from the tough days of the 1800s. Equally it could be a reminder of what we have lost.

Theoretically today’s workers don’t have an eight hour day anymore but instead a 38 hour week with four weeks holiday and lots of breaks for public holidays.

The trade unionists are also unlikely to be stonemasons with most of workforce not made up of tradespeople such as stonemasons. There are now only 14% of Australians who are members of unions. Rather than being stonemasons they comprise 36.4% of the education and training workforce; 23.9% of health care and social assistance; 23.8% of transport and postal and 32.3% in public administration and safety. 47% of the workforce are also now female – about half of them working part time.

Morrison’s tradies, in contrast, are generally self-employed and, unlike old-style tradespeople, expect any esteem they may get to stem from the size of their vehicle and boat rather than the esteem of fellow tradespeople for their expertise.

There are also lots of women in trade unions and it’s no accident that both the ACTU President and Secretary are female. There were also many women involved in industry in the past despite the assumption that they stayed at home and looked after the children.

Indeed, they did look after the children but also held down full-time jobs at the same time, many of them employed in Australia’s then thriving textile and clothing industry as machinists.  These were not Menzies forgotten people – just forgotten.

In the industry today garments are imported from Bangladesh and similar places or are manufactured by Australian cottage industry operations run by the most recent migrants from their own home.

There are now somewhere between 13% and 20% – very hard to estimate exactly – of workers are casual employees. Some are in the so-called gig economy although the reality is that the gig workers will more likely driving a Uber or delivering the takeaway you ordered during the pandemic.

Wage theft in many of these industries – especially retail – has been endemic.

Then there are independent contractors. Take Victoria’s disastrous hotel quarantine regime as an example – the major source of Victorian COVID infections after the Ruby Princess debacle.

Because governments have stripped the public service of people who can deliver things services inevitably get contracted out. The contractors then contract out to labour hire firms who then contract out to individual workers who may have no skills or effective training and get paid very little.

In the aged case casual contract labour underpins the profits of the private aged care operators as casual staff flit from aged care home to aged care home taking COVID with them. It is no accident that there were very few COVID deaths in state-run Victorian aged care facilities and the vast majority were in privately owned operations set up by greedy owners who jumped on the opportunity John Howard’s deregulation of the sector provided.

Meanwhile the professional classes – while better remunerated – have imported Wall Steet finance and legal standards. The average Australian lawyer works 66 hours a week and some lucky doctors – a third – get away with 45 to 50 hours a week while some 23% work 60 to 80 hours a week.

But while Eight Hour Day’s replacement – Moomba – might seem crass, garish and commercial it does have some special significance for today’s relationships with employers.

When the idea was first considered it was decided – in a far-sighted move – to give it an Indigenous name. But the organisers made the mistake of asking for advice from the great unionist and Indigenous activist, Bill Onus. He’d used the term Moomba in a play, Aboriginal Moomba, in 1952.

He then suggested it to the festival organisers who were under the impression the word meant let’s get together and have fun.

In the 1960s Indigenous and other scholars recognised the term as derived from the Healesville Indigenous site usage for bottom or rump. In 1989 another linguist construed it as ‘up your bum/arse’

As to why he did there are a number of explanations. Some suggested it was a shot at the Melbourne City Council for upstaging the traditional Labour Day march with a carnival. Lin Onus, his son, also said his father had intended to play a prank on the city fathers.

Whatever, the phrase – up your arse/bum – is a very suitable description for the fate of today’s current workers as unions decline and casualisation become endemic.