May Day is a not always a distress signal.  Traditional May Day has been the day that workers around the world stand up and remind everyone that they are still here and what has been achieved through unity.  This weekends vision of May Day protest around the world sadly also shows that these days they so often end in confrontation and violence.  Was it always like this?

Well, so often it is confrontation that causes a reconsider.  In May 1886 in Chicago, striking workers were fired upon.  The following year the occasion was marked by workers protest and May Day was born.  In Australia the day first came to prominence in 1891 when striking shearers met in Barcaldine Queensland, organising themselves and giving birth to the Australian Labor Party in the process.

The following year, hey presto, Sydney and Melbourne held rallys and away the movement went.  In 1892 3000 workers marched in Sydney on May Day.  In the years between the two world wars, the day was often associated with communist and sociaslist groups and as tensions in Europe and the world increased, so to did the numbers who marched.  Resinstance against fascism was a common theme. In 1947 20,000 marched with 55 unions represented.  Each union paraded with a banner, painted with scenes depicting the work their members did.  These banners were signposts of battles won on behalf of the workers.

8 Hour Jubilee Art Union Poster 1905
8 Hour Jubilee Art Union Poster 1905

But May Day in Australia was in competition with another labour celebration, the 8 Hour Day, celebrated on different days throughout Australia, but traditionally around October in Sydney.  The eight hour day, now a standard for all workers (well most), was hard fought to achieve.  In 1856, stonemasons in Sydney downed tools to protest over 10+ hour days.  Chipping and breaking stone for Sydney’s magnificent stone edifices was hard work, especially in summer heat.  Lucky for the stonemasons, many of their bosses had come up through the ranks and knew the pain and the eight hours agreed to.

Once one group had it, others wanted it and soon the call for 8 hours work, 8 hours rest and 8 hours recreation was the call of all unions.  From 1862 an annual procession was held in Sydney, marching from Circular Quay to Redfern. And so it was that the idea of an eight hour working day spread from Sydney out to the world.

Unions march on Macquarie Street 1937
Unions march on Macquarie Street 1937 (State Library of NSW, hood_31948)

With all this Union activity going on, in 1871 the Sydney Trade and Labour Council was formed to co-ordinate them all, particularly in relation to working hours.  The Council needed a home and so in 1885 a Trades Hall Committee was formed.  A block was offered by the government of the day at Circular Quay, but with no provision for an adjacent site to erect a hotel, it was rejected.  Finally a site was agreed on at the corner of Goulburn Street and Dixon Steet, where the grand new trades hall was to be built.  The foundation stone was laid in 1888 by Lord Carrington and Henry Parkes, and over the next 29 years the hall was built, with contributions from the various unions and the sale of shares in the building itself.

In 1903 a Banner Room was opened to house and display the union banners that were paraded at May Day and the Labour Day marches.  Reading rooms, a  barber shop, auditorium and offices were all incorporated for the use of the members.  In 1925 a new radio station, 2KY began broadcasting from the tower in the hall ,plugging the workers message to the wider world.  2KY was eventually sold in 2001 with the proceeds going to renovate the Trades Hall building.