Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Celebrating May Day in New Zealand

Mr. May Day, 1840, New Zealander:  Samuel Parnell

The USA, and many other countries claim they pioneered the 40 hour week, but an unsung New Zealander, Sam Parnell, should claim the title for in 1840 he won the right to a 40 hour week.

Labour Day or May Day commemorates the struggle for an eight-hour working day. New Zealand workers were among the first in the world to claim this right when, in 1840, the carpenter Samuel Parnell won an eight-hour day in Wellington. Labour Day was first celebrated in New Zealand on 28 October 1890, when several thousand trade union members and supporters attended parades in the main centres. Government employees were given the day off to attend the parades and many businesses closed for at least part of the day.

Above: Dunedin Labour Day parade, 1894.
Dunedin is my home town and I was brought up on heavy socialist/labour diet of 'better conditions for workers', and recall my Uncles and my Dad recounting the oppression from successive liberal/conservative Governments against workers in the the Depression of the 1930s when they were told by the Prime Minister of New Zealand at the Dunedin Town Hall, " If you are hungry, eat grass." They mobbed together after this discriminatory speech and broke into all the major food stores in Dunedin. Where did I get my radical streak from. then, when the whiskey came out, the spoke passionately of queuing up for food during the depression for food handouts for a family of 12, and all they got was rotten fish. My Dad, James William Godfrey McKerrow, quitely told me in old age," We didn't waste the rotten fish, we planted it under the apple tree."

Early Labour Day parades drew huge crowds in places such as Palmerston North and Napier as well as in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Unionists and supporters marched behind colourful banners and ornate floats, and the parades were followed by popular picnics and sports events.

These parades also had a political purpose. Although workers in some industries had long enjoyed an eight-hour day, it was not a legal entitlement. Other workers, including seamen, farm labourers, and hotel, restaurant and shop employees, still worked much longer hours. Many also endured unpleasant and sometimes dangerous working conditions. Unionists wanted the Liberals to pass legislation enforcing an eight-hour day for all workers, but the government was reluctant to antagonise the business community.

What the Liberals did do was make Labour Day a holiday. The Labour Day Act of 1899 created a statutory public holiday on the second Wednesday in October, first celebrated in 1900. The holiday was 'Mondayised' in 1910, and since then it has been held on the fourth Monday in October.

In the first decade of the 20th century industrial unrest reappeared. The Liberal government was in decline, prices were rising and the Arbitration Court was seen as reluctant to raise wages. The more militant labour movement that emerged from around 1908 rejected the Liberals' arbitration system and condemned the increasing commercialisation of Labour Day parades. Many floats advertised businesses as well as temperance organisations, theatres, circuses and patriotic causes. Some socialists promoted May Day (1 May) as an alternative celebration of workers' struggles. Although unionists and their supporters continued to hold popular gatherings and sports events, by the 1920s Labour Day had begun to decline as a public spectacle. For most New Zealanders, it was now just another holiday.