May 7, 2013

May Day is Labour Day

Monday 7 May 2012 was Labour Day in Queensland and a public holiday. We had a lovely long weekend in Rainbow Beach.

Yesterday, Monday 6 May 2013, was an ordinary working day in Queensland. Labour Day has been moved to Monday 7 October, by Campbell Newman's government, ostensibly to bring us into line with New South Wales, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, and to spread out public holidays more evenly throughout the year.

May Day is traditionally a Northern Hemisphere event with its origins in pagan festivals. It is associated with the end of winter and the beginning of summer, with flowers and fertility, and it is certainly a cause for celebration, often exuberant. These celebrations take many forms: in the UK it's all about dancing with ribbons around maypoles, and May Queens, and baskets of flowers, and more dancing, this time by men wearing bells and baldrics.

In Australia, of course, it's coming on winter. There are, on the other hand, Morris men in every state.

May Day is also marching day, if it's Labour Day and since it's International Workers' Day. The latter originated in post-Civil War Chicago, when workers, many of them immigrants, fought for an 8-hour day. A new law was supposed to come into effect on 1 May 1886. The cause of those who died in the ensuing violence when it didn't materialise was shared with nascent workers' movements in Europe – and Australia – protesting for the rights of unions and immigrant workers. In the US shortly afterwards, a day celebrating the contribution of workers to society was designated later in the year (the first Monday in September) to disassociate it from Socialism, Communism, and the violence of the struggle.

The date of Labour Day in some countries reflects significant events in the history of the labour movement of those countries. It differs from state to state in Australia: in Tassie, for instance, it's the second Monday in March and is called Eight Hours Day. But for anyone of European origin, May Day is Labour Day. It's a strong tradition in Queensland, too. One of the first Labour Day/May Day marches ever held in Australia was in Queensland in 1891, in Barcaldine in the Central West. The Labour Day date started to be moved to different times of year in some states after the Second World War. But only now in Queensland. And the workers aren't happy.

The reasons are spurious. Why would Queenslanders care about being in line with the southern states? They stubbornly refuse to switch to Daylight Saving Time, so for half the year they're in a different time zone. The queen's birthday had already been moved from June to October by the previous State Government, evening out the holidays following a government discussion paper to which the public were invited to respond. But Newman has moved it back to where it was and moved Labour Day instead. Amendments to the Holidays Act (1983) were passed on 30 October 1012 without further public consultation.

So, in many parts of Queensland last weekend, marches and other traditional May Day events took place regardless of what many see as Newman's attack on workers' traditions. For many people in the labour movement, it's the final straw. Thousands of public servants have lost their jobs since he came to power, and now there's talk of public asset sales.

In Barcaldine, the annual Tree of Knowledge Festival saw hundreds turn out for, among other things, the goat racing. In Brisbane there was a march and a rally addressed by PM Julia Gillard. The Queensland Council of Unions claimed that tens of thousands marched, the biggest number in a decade. The Courier Mail, Queensland's only statewide daily newspaper, didn't see fit to even mention the rally or the PM's presence in its online edition yesterday. No need to tell you who the paper's owners are.

Some unions are so unhappy about the change of date that they're planning to protest on the new Labour Day in October and every subsequent May Day weekend until the holiday is reinstated. About 500 gathered noisily outside the State Law building in the CBD on Monday morning. Emotions ran high – and not just among drivers caught in massive congestion on their way to work.

And the name of the winning goat in Barcaldine? Rather appositely for the birthplace of the Labor* Party, it was Up the Mighty Worker. I kid you not.

* the Australian Labour Party was influenced by the American labour movement in its early years and changed the spelling in 1912. It was also considered useful to distinguish the Party from the Australian labour movement

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