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Trade Unionism

It is impossible to understand the ideological and organisational origins of the early Victorian labour movement without considering the radical political culture of the goldfields. A feature of goldfields political idealism was British Chartism with its calls for parliamentary reform and universal suffrage. Invariably some Chartists found their way to Victorian goldfields during the 1850s and it could be claimed that the ethos of Chartism can be found in the egalitarian attitudes – particularly in the idea of the world turned upside down in an inversion of the social order – that are readily associated with the gold rush era.

It was also during the gold rush period in Victoria that the idea of the Eight Hour Day came to prominence. This campaign was based upon the maxim of the British Socialist, Robert Owen, who proposed ‘eight hours labour, eight hours rest, eight hours recreation’. During the mid-1850s, Victorian shopkeepers representing the Early Closing Association had made early attempts at shorter hours. However, it was the Operative Masons Society meeting, at Collingwood in February 1856, that provided the first concerted action for shorter working hours. Many of the stonemasons who were involved in the campaign went on to play important roles in the construction of the Trades Hall and were key members of the Trades Hall Council. The miners’ union, whose presence was strongest on the Victorian goldfields, supported this. This union has, since the 1850s, been one of the key trade unions in Australian industrial life.

Keir Reeves