Labour Day is to celebrate workers’ rights, the eight-hour working day and unions, isn’t it?
Had I been asked about the day’s origins, that’s what I’d have answered but Rodney Hide points out the generally accepted explanation of Labour Day’s origins is built on a myth:
Tomorrow is Labour Day. Once again we will endure the annual claptrap that unions are great and won for us the eight-hour day. Without unions we would be working 24/7. It’s nonsense.
The Labour Day bunk dates from the start of European settlement. Carpenter Samuel Parnell arrived at what we now call Petone aboard the Duke of Roxburgh.
The Duke was just the third migrant ship to Wellington. Parnell was newly married, 30 years old and had travelled from London in search of a better life.
He found it.
On-board was shipping agent George Hunter, who asked Parnell to build him a store. Parnell agreed but on the condition that he work only eight hours a day. Hunter wasn’t happy. Eight-hour days weren’t the custom in London, but he had little choice: there were only three carpenters in Wellington.
Hence was born the eight-hour day. The practice caught on. For more than 100 years we have celebrated the eight-hour day as a victory for trade unionism. We know it as Labour Day which, on the fourth Monday of every October, is a public holiday.
We hear every year of the union movement’s long, hard struggle. It wasn’t easy winning the eight-hour day, we are repetitively told.
Without unions, greedy employers would have us working every hour, every day.
It’s a myth. The so-called victory had nothing to do with unions. It was simple supply and demand. The demand for skilled labour was high in the new and growing settlement. The supply was low.
Parnell could have negotiated more pay. But he chose fewer hours. That was his choice. That was the free market.
Every Labour Day we should be remembering how the eight-hour day was “won”: it was by two men negotiating, no third party involved. There were no unions. There was no labour legislation.
The good-faith bargain was sealed with a simple handshake. And the two men prospered. Parnell soon had enough to buy land in Karori and establish himself as a farmer. Hunter proved a successful merchant and was Wellington’s first Mayor. Auckland’s Parnell is named after Samuel.
Both men did well because they were free to negotiate what was best. They weren’t locked into antiquated work practices.
It was the free market that delivered. Parnell was fortunate he could bargain on his own behalf. That’s what delivered the eight-hour day. . . .
Unions have played a part in working for, and gaining, workers’ rights and they still have a role to play.
But neither workers nor employers are well-served by the old-fashioned confrontational employment relations and rigid rules we had to endure in the past.
Flexible rules which give workers necessary protections and choice while also making it easier for businesses to employ people are better for business and their staff.
Every Waitangi Day there are calls for it to be renamed New Zealand Day or for us to have another holiday to celebrate as New Zealand Day.
Given the accepted story about Labour Day is a myth, it could be time to change the name, let it become New Zealand Day and provide the opportunity to celebrate the nation.