From the mid-19th century onwards, the Australian labour force began to unionise, to collectively bargain for improved wages and conditions. Unions sprang up across the country representing workers in a range of industries and trades from confectioners, butchers and carters to wharf labourers, electricians and coal lumpers.

Group arm-in-arm at the Textile Workers' Picnic at Clifton Gardens 1934 (State Library of NSW, hood_01096)
Group arm-in-arm at the Textile Workers’ Picnic at Clifton Gardens 1934 (State Library of NSW, hood_01096)

Picnic days were not public holidays and were not held on one day of the year. Rather, each industrial union had its own picnic day. Picnics days were an opportunity for the workers to spend a leisure day together, often with their families and usually involving competitive sport and games, including running races; also dances and more formal luncheons.

For some, the union picnic days were considered an industrial ‘sweetener’. For others, picnic days represented an ‘inconvenience to the public’ – when a trade or industry was on a union picnic day, it meant a service not available for that one day. 

Men's sprint race, Australian Paper Mills Picnic, Clifton Gardens, 1935 (State Library of NSW,hood_01742
Men’s sprint race, Australian Paper Mills Picnic, Clifton Gardens, 1935 (State Library of NSW, hood_01742)

By the mid-20th century, thousands attended the picnics. Ferries and trains were used to transport workers and their families to a leisure spots on Sydney’s beaches, harbours and rivers. Popular places for union picnics in Sydney included Clifton Gardens and Chowder Bay near Mosman, Parsley Bay near Vaucluse and Gunnamatta Bay near Cronulla.  

In 1879, the Seaman’s Union met at their rooms, unfurled their new banner and marched in a street parade to Circular Quay. They boarded a ferry to attend their picnic at Chowder Bay, where they embarked on a program of sporting events. There was sailing regatta at the Coal Lumpers union picnic in 1885, held at Chowder Bay.

A group of politicians and union officials at the Tramway Picnic 1934 (State Library of NSW, hood_01011)
A group of politicians and union officials at the Tramway Picnic 1934 (State Library of NSW, hood_01011)

At the second annual picnic organised by the Amalgamated Slaughtermen and Journeyman Butchers at Chowder Bay in 1891, several thousand people attended, including a number of ‘labour representatives elected for the first time to the new parliament’. In 1943, three special electric trains were put on for the Meat Works Union picnic at Gunnamatta Bay.

Union picnic days continue to be held annually, but with many small unions having since been amalgamated, and with union membership at an all time low in Australia, they are not so well attended or such an annual fixture. Which is a shame!
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