Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Samuel Parnell and the history of Labour Day in New Zealand

Labour Day does not attract a lot of attention in the New Zealand of 2014. There are no major ceremonies or parades, and very little media coverage or discussion about its history or meaning. It pales in comparison to other public holidays such as Anzac Day and Waitangi Day, both of which are commemorated with big ceremonies and a large amount of media attention and debate. Yet all three public holidays represent a connection to an important aspect of New Zealand's history: our bicultural heritage (Waitangi Day), our involvement in war (Anzac Day) and our Labour history (Labour Day).

For many New Zealanders of 1890, Labour Day was not yet an official public holiday, but it nevertheless represented a significant and highly valued historical connection. The labour movement of the time was growing more and more powerful, and it viewed the year 1890 as the fiftieth anniversary of Samuel Parnell's fight for the 8 hour day. Thousands of people took part in processions in all of the major centres, where speeches were followed by a sort of carnival. Paul Corliss describes the Wellington 1890 Labour Day:

The day was more passionate and organised than Union members have contemplated, let alone experienced, in the last several decades. The joyous atmosphere had been created at a price and at some industrial risk. The editorial report (29 October 1890) about the day highlighted some of the attendant tensions that were about the city when it noted that “the strike had alienated the sympathy of the majority of employers ...”. It further recorded that many of the business establishments were closed all day and a number shut in the afternoon. The parade encompassed not just trade unionists and activists but deliberately involved the wider community, was organised to incorporate the labouring classes, their families and friends, and did not separate out the industrial or workplace agenda from the family and its political future. Recreation and enjoyment were also a well planned and essential component of the message1.

The 'recreation and enjoyment' aspect was quite important, and reflected the culture of the time:

Aswell as the usual lolly scrambles and merry-go-round rides, “youths and maidens” played the alluringly named “kiss in the ring” or danced to one of the several bands present. The 'clever' Royal Gymnasts twirled on the Roman rings and tumbled through their acrobatic exercises2.

Sports and games were intertwined with a more serious political message. Corliss describes the massive Dunedin Labour Day 'after party':

A huge crowd, variously reported as 8,000 to over 11,000 people, attended their sports' day at the Caledonian Ground. […] A little after 5 o'clock that evening, the skirl of preceding bagpipes signalled the late arrival of a large mass of Amalgamated Society of of Railway Servants' members from the railway workshops. The apparently despised Railway Commisioners had refused them a holiday to participate in the day. They had decided to collectively vent their displeasure at 'the tyranny of the Commissioners” and were supported by the large and listening crowd who gave forth with a loud three cheers for the workers and a thunderous three groans for the Commissioners and the Government. The net sum raised on the day was some £247 and with characteristic southern generosity £200 of this sum was donated to the striking miners at Denniston on the West Coast3.

These descriptions of 1890's Labour Day invite us to consider several questions: Why was the 8 hour day struggle such a big deal? What was going on in New Zealand at the time to make labour issues so important? If it was such a big deal then in 1890, why is it now such an insignificant public holiday? How and why did Labour Day decline?

    Samuel Parnell and the 8 hour day

Samuel Parnell was a skilled carpenter who emigrated to New Zealand on board the Duke of Roxburgh in 1840. He was not happy working the 12 – 14 hour days he was expected to work in England, and dissatisfied with the meekness of the union, which refused to fight for shorter working hours. On board the same ship Parnell met a shipping agent, George Hunter, who needed a carpenter to build a store for goods in transit. Parnell agreed to work for Hunter, but only on the condition that he work eight hour days. Hunter was not happy about these terms, but reluctantly accepted them – skilled carpenters were in short supply in New Zealand at the time.

Samuel Parnell

This precedent that Parnell set was more than just a negotiation between an employer in a hard position and an individual who drove a hard bargain: Parnell actively spread the word about his success, and advocated other workers to follow his lead. Bert Roth describes Parnell's precedent and the collective action he inspired:

Other employers tried to impose the traditional long hours, but Parnell met incoming ships, talked to the workmen and enlisted their support. A workers' meeting in October 1840, held outside German Brown's Hotel on Lambton Quay, is said to have resolved, …. to work 8 hours a day, from 8am to 5pm, anyone offending to be ducked into the harbour. The eight hour working day thus became established in the Wellington settlement. …. The last resistance was broken, according to Parnell, when labourers who were building the road along the harbour to the Hutt Valley in 1841 downed tools because they were ordered to work longer hours. They did not resume work until the eight hour day was conceded4.

In the 1890 Labour Day parade in Wellington, the elderly Parnell led the procession and gave the keynote speech. There was actually a fair amount of debate at the time however about who the rightful 'Father of the Eight Hour Day' actually was. Samuel Shaw led a protest movement of workers in Dunedin in opposition to Captain Cargill, who expected them to work 'according to the good old Scotch rule' of ten hours per day. In Auckland the painter William Griffin organised the Carpenters and Joiners Society to insist on eight hour days, which set a strong precedent in that region also. Without getting too deep into the historical details, it is fairly clear that skilled workers such as Parnell, Shaw and Griffin were successful in establishing the eight hour day as a national custom throughout New Zealand during the 1840s and 1850s. They were successful in establishing this custom partly due to the fact that skilled labour was in short supply, so they had a strong bargaining position with employers. It is very clear however that the employers were only willing to accept the eight hour day because they were forced to. Without the determined collective action organised by Parnell and other skilled workers, the eight hour day would surely not have been successfully established as a custom.

Although by the time of the 1880s the eight hour day was customary, it was not an official law and it was never universally observed. Bert Roth observes that

Tradesmen and labourers did enjoy an eight hour day, but many other workers were still required to put in longer hours. The plight of shop assistants was notorious […] farmworkers were another group working long hours, as were domestic servants, clerks and, more surprisingly, locomotive drivers and other staff in the state-owned railways5.

It also needs to be noted that many of these 8 hour day campaigners went on to become settlers and landowners. We can be rightfully proud of the values Parnell and others fought for, but we cannot pretend that these values were on offer to the tagata whenua. The category Roth mentions above of 'domestic workers' would have included a huge number of women. So although the 8 hour day struggle was an important victory, we have to remember that it was a victory mainly for white male workers.

The 1880s, Unions and the Maritime Council Strike

The massively popular Labour Day parades of 1890 also had a lot to do with the broader historical background of the 1880s depression and the labour struggles throughout that decade. More and more workers organised themselves into unions, and the demand for an official and legally recognised 8 hour day became a central issue. These unions now extended into the ranks of the unskilled and semi skilled workers, and cooperated with each other to organise as a more effective political force. This pattern of more and more vigorous union activity led to the formation of the Maritime Council in Dunedin, where in late 1889 seamen, watersiders and miners joined forces. The leader of this new union, Captain Millar, was a staunch proponent of the 8 hour day who both promoted and organised the Labour Day processions of 1890.

The sad part of this story now needs to be told: the Maritime council organised a nationwide strike in August 1890, but this was eventually defeated. As Bert Roth explains, 'The strike was in its dying stages in late October but, though the outcome was clear, the Labour Day demonstrations were a resounding success.'. So the popularity of the Labour Day parade and the strength of feeling behind the demand for the 8 hour day needs to be seen in the context of this defeat. Having said this, surely any strike which goes nationwide and lasts three months is a really powerful and significant achievement, even if it does get defeated in the end.

This mixture of union militancy and a tendency to back down and compromise is reflected in the diversity of the banners carried by workers in the Labour Day parade. Turning again to Bert Roth to illustrate this:

The 1890 Labour Day marches were a show of strength by the union movement, a signal to the employers that, though defeated, labour was still a force to be reckoned with. 'Might is Right has run its race,' read a Dunedin building workers banner, 'Right is Might now takes its place. Now law but vox populi.' A Christchurch Amalgamated Labour Union banner stated boldly that 'Labour Omnia Vincit' (Labour Conquers All), but these were not revolutionary marches clamouring for the overthrow of the economic system. Wellington watersiders, whose union and jobs were about to disappear (they were being replaced by scabs) carried a banner with the clasped hands symbol and the motto 'Defence not Defiance', while the equally doomed Lyttleton wharfies had a banner, designed by a union member, which depicted a merchant and a labourer shaking hands and the inscription 'Labour and Capital as they should be6'.

This picture can be read in two ways: we can either focus on the tendency of some workers to back down and cooperate with employers, or we can focus on the more militant sections of the working class who carried the strident and uncompromising banners. Just like with the Maritime strike, the banners of the more militant workers should still be seen as inspiring, even if large sections of the working class did not share their militancy.

The Rise and Decline of Labour Day

One feature of the Labour Day parades which is quite significant is the nature of the floats, banners and displays. Workers made models and banners depicting their trades: seamen made model ships, the boilermakers carried a makeshift furnace, bakers carried banners with pictures of their cakes and bread and so on. So alongside banners demanding “Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest”, workers actually displayed their pride about what they did in their jobs. Unfortunately, this display of pride and dignity was displaced by more commercial interests as the union movement receded, and business owners manipulated the content and meaning of the floats and displays.

After 1890, when most unskilled and semiskilled unions collapsed, the annual processions became again the domain of the tradesmen's societies, as they had been in the 1880s. These societies vied with each other in displaying their skills to the public, but they had to compete for attention with visiting theatre groups and even circuses, which were allowed to take part in the parades, and with business firms which quickly realised the opportunity to promote their products. When the breweries entered floats, the temperance societies insisted on their right to provide counter-attractions denouncing the evils of the drink traffic. As the processions were gradually drained of their union content, the numbers of union marchers declined.

Labour Day became more and more detached from its union heritage, and the focus was placed mostly upon the afternoon sports and picnics: 'There were merry-go-rounds and baby shows and all manner of entertainments for young and old7.' The fact that the 8 hour day custom, and the principled demand for adequate leisure time which inspired it, came from a history of worker's struggle was obscured by this depoliticised focus on recreation. Politicians actively and skillfully manipulated the 8 hour day message into a subservient format: for example, the Liberal politician Sir Robert Stout said this to the Wellington Labour Day crowd in 1891: “ insisting on the eight hour principle working classes were fighting for their moral, mental and physical health and would thus be doing a duty to themselves, to their families, and to their employers8”.

Bert Roth concludes his analysis of the decline of Labour Day:

The Labour Day celebrations reflected the Lib-Lab ideology of a partnership between labour and capital. When the Liberal-Labour coalition disintegrated, the Labour Day marches also declined in popularity. They did not fit the militant ideology of the Red Federation of Labour, which was in the ascendancy in 1912 -13, and half-hearted attempts after the first world war failed to rekindle enthusiasm. 'Labour Day', wrote the Auckland Star in 1920, 'is a holiday to be enjoyed rather than a day of aggressive demonstration as May Day is on the continent.' Labour Day indeed became just another paid holiday, the proper time to plant tomatoes9.

What can we learn from this history?

Looking forward into 2015, without any doubt the biggest and most ideologically significant public holiday will be Anzac Day. The centenary of the Gallipoli landings will be the occasion for an orgy of sentimentalised 'remembrance' and patriotism. Second place in this contest will fortunately be awarded to Waitangi Day (there will probably be some kind of repeat of the Herald's “protest free” edition, but this will be fiercely and loudly countered by more progressive forces). In terms of public spectacle and ideological prominence, Labour Day will trail a distant third place.

Traditions and commemorations are surely not monolithic, so although we are in a fairly depressing period of history, I don't think we should succumb to depression. As the Labour Day history shows, these sorts of traditions are changeable, and their fortunes rise and fall according to the nature and intensity of class struggle. The recent anti union 'tea break' legislation is a good example of why the values and ideals which motivated people like Samuel Parnell to fight for the 8 hour day are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century. Whether or not Labour Day is resurrected, the struggle for time for us to do as we please – free from the exploitative demands of the capitalist economy – will continue to be an important aspect of political struggle.

Corliss, Paul. 2008. “Samuel Parnell – A Legacy: The 8 hour Day, Labour Day and Time Off”. Purple Grouse Press.

Roth, Bert. 1991. “Labour Day in New Zealand”. The Dunmore Press Limited

1Corliss (2008)
4Roth (1991)


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