top of page

Thank God It's Friday? Nah Thank The Unions

TGIF: the millennial posts each Friday on their story, but did you know the reason we have weekends is because of unions? So don’t thank god - thank the unions.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about unions, and in particular, a lot of smear campaigning, typically from those who profit off of exploiting workers.

Peasants and slaves were the first working force. They were not allowed wages; they were "allowed" to use their own labour to build their own homes. It wasn't unless you were a lucky apprentice or craftsman that you might have been paid a wage.

Most employment for wages began during the industrial age. Many died in poor working conditions, and workers had to join together for mutual support and better pay through strikes until the employer accepted their demands.

During the time of war and revolution, strikes began being viewed as political, and many claimed it was a socialist act. There was great pushback from employers and governments to try and outlaw trade and labour unions.

Industrialisation saw the workplace boom, with more work and more hours. It highlighted the need for rest, so Saturdays became typically shorter working days. This, however, only meant a 9-hour working day rather than an 11-hour working day - not too much leisure if you ask me.

Australia has a lengthy history with unions and workers strikes. Ranging from convicts, gold diggers, Indigenous people and to labourers during the war.

On April 21st, 1856, at the University of Melbourne, stonemasons working at the university walked off and demanded the eight-hour workday. This was at a time when ten-hour workdays were the norm and workers worked six days a week. This walk-off and their demands shocked employers because how could they earn a profit off of workers only working 8 hours a day and having a shorter Saturday. These stonemasons made a point of the right to rest and recreational downtime, arguing that they were humans, not just workers; they should not be defined by their work. On this day, the stonemasons marched to the parliament house, which was being constructed, and the builders on-site also joined them. This was successful and a world first. For the first time, workers were granted the 8-hour workday at no loss to their pay.

The war led to the push for more working hours to make up for the loss of workers who were fighting. This again caused employers to fight for workers' hours to be increased. In 1941, five and a half days were considered to be an extremely short work week, with half Saturdays off and Sundays remaining as the day off, predominantly due to it being a religious day.

In 1947, the Arbitration Court ruled in favour of the 40-hour workweek, which would become the general standard starting from 1st January 1948, marking the birth of the weekend. However, this was just the beginning of a series of victories for unions in the subsequent years, aimed at safeguarding workers' rights to a life beyond the workplace. Over time, unions successfully campaigned for the extension of annual leave from two weeks to three, and later to four weeks. In 1981, a significant achievement came when the Metal Workers union secured the right to a 38-hour workweek. This achievement subsequently extended to other industries as well.

For numerous casual workers and those employed in the gig economy, the concept of a weekend remains elusive. Even the penalty rates that unions fought to secure for casual workers have been rescinded in various industries. Despite unions' vigorous campaigns against such actions, their adversaries emerged victorious. Why does this happen? The most crucial lesson learned from the history of the weekend is straightforward: these triumphs occur when workers unite, organise in their unions, and take decisive action. In recent years, unions have faced challenges and come under attack. Employers and governments have implemented measures that diminish job security.


bottom of page