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The 888 Movement Wasn't As Dramatic As You Think

The story goes that stonemasons all over Melbourne forcefully downed tools and went on strike one fateful day in 1856. They allegedly marched to the doors of Parliament and demanded eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours for what they will. You can almost hear them singing, like a scene from Les Misérables. It's a great story, and if it helps you in your daily struggle to imagine a great unified force of workers going on strike, we do hate to deprive you of that notion.

But the truth is something less cinematic. They didn't go on strike at all. The truth, however, is a far more illuminating lesson about power and how it works. They didn't go on strike because they didn't have to. The stonemasons didn't have to exercise their power, because they possessed so much of it.

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April 21st is the fateful day that is so often cited, but the movement started earlier than that. In February, a meeting was held in a Collingwood hotel to reform the Operative Masons Society, which had been devastated by so many working men heading to the Goldfields. Upon the reformation, a committee was also established to deal with Melbourne's building contractors regarding reforms such as the eight-hour day. Negotiations with contractors subsequently begun.

They announced their intent in advance. They decreed that the 21st of April would be the beginning of the eight-hour day. And when the day came, they followed through.

James Galloway, one of the leaders of the movement, says as much in his letter to the Argus on that very day. He writes:

Sir.– As the procession of to-day may tend to lead the public to believe that a general strike had taken place for the obtainment of the Eight-Hour system, I beg to inform you that the procession was formed entirely of individuals who have obtained that great blessing.
— James Galloway

What did occur was a procession of stonemasons who ended their workday at the eight-hour mark, and began a procession down to Parliament. It was a hot day, by all accounts: a good day for a reasonable knock-off time and a walk with a few hundred of your closest friends. The site that is the focus of stories from the period is the Law School at Melbourne University, but the procession was joined by workers from all but two sites in the city: the Queen Victoria Market and the Houses of Parliament.

They marched to Parliament, not to make demands of the government, but because that was where the last contractor to accept their demands was engaged. What need did they have of government intervention? They had taken direct action and their demands had been accepted. (Their victory that day wasn't legislated for decades, it was only upheld through industrial means.)

"Yes they found themselves in fortuitous and privileged circumstances, but their true gift was in understanding their power and knowing how to use it."

The lessons here are powerful. First, the men (let's be honest, because women in the workforce did not share the fruits of this victory, and still don't) knew the nature of their power and where it came from. The masons were skilled workers. At this time in history, unions for so-called "unskilled" labour didn't exist. Bricklayers and labourers on building sites were able to benefit from the strength of the masons, but they were not a union like the CFMEU are today. As such, as highly skilled workers - basically artisans - they were in demand and could not be easily replaced. On top of this, Melbourne was undergoing an exodus of working people who sought their fortunes in the goldfields of Ballarat and its surrounds. The pool of labour that could be drawn on was not very deep. So yes, they found themselves in fortuitous and privileged circumstances, but their true gift was in understanding their power and knowing how to use it.

The second lesson is that nothing happens spontaneously. So many accounts of this story make it sound like the Stonemasons at Melbourne University all of a sudden decided they were fed up and walked off the job. What's more, they make it sound like it was the decision of one man: James Stevens. Stevens was a leader among the masons, to be sure, but he did not singlehandedly decide to shut down the construction industry on a Monday afternoon. There had been months of planning and meetings, both internally within the union and with employers. They were angry, yes, but they were organised.

Finally, and perhaps most relevantly, is that going on strike isn't the only type of direct action. How many positive changes have been won with just the threat of action? Or with slowdowns? Or with overtime bans? Or public shaming of the employer? Or political pressure? Or boycotts? Or secondary boycotts? Or OHS mechanisms? You get the idea: the possibilities are numerous. Just because something doesn't develop into a full-blown walkout, doesn't mean nothing happened. Power exists everywhere and is at play at all times, not just at the sharp edges.

So yes, the 888 Movement wasn't as dramatic as it's often made out to be, but it was still massively ground breaking. Melbourne was undeniably the birthplace of the eight-hour day, and that doesn't just happen on its own.

The story goes that stonemasons all over Melbourne forcefully downed tools and went on strike one fateful day in 1856. They allegedly marched to the doors of Parliament and demanded eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours for what they will. You can almost hear them singing, like a scene from Les Misérables. It's a great story, and if it helps you in your daily struggle to imagine a great unified force of workers going on strike, we do hate to deprive you of that notion.

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