Australian workers’ lives were shaped by the Master and Servant Act until the 1850s, making any protest a crime. Many workers banded together for mutual support, so the Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons of NSW formed in 1853. Pyrmont quarrymasters recruited skilled men, many of them from Scotland. These men knew the value of their skills, and many had been involved in the radical Chartist Movement in Britain. In 1855 the Stonemasons Society warned employers that in six months’ time they would only work an eight-hour day. Men working on the Garrison Church and the Mariners Church could not wait. They struck, and became the first Australian union – perhaps the first in the world – to win the eight-hour day. The whole union succeeded a few months later, after a two-week strike on the construction of Tooth’s Brewery. Their victory was slightly offset by a matching reduction in wages.
From then on, trade union banners were unfurled with pride in Eight Hour Day marches which advocated ‘Eight Hours Labour, Eight Hours Recreation and Eight Hours Rest’. In Sydney, by the 1900s, thousands of unionists representing seventy unions would march in such parades.
The union was also a welfare agency, and the minutes of their meetings show how seriously they took their commitments. Annual reports list monthly expenses and their purpose – often, travelling to attend members’ funerals; reporting on employers whose men were working more than 48 hours a week; and keeping records during strikes of members who were pickets and those who were strikebreakers.
Despite the skills of the stonemasons, and their solidarity, their jobs were reliant on the prosperity of the building industry. The work was demanding and dangerous, and during downturns in the New South Wales economy, masons shared the fate of other trades.