27 October 2013

Fred Bust and the first Labour Day celebration

Frederick Robert Bust
The campaign for an eight-hour working day started in New Zealand in 1849, when Samuel Parnell, a carpenter with much-needed skills, landed at Petone Beach and refused to start work until he was granted an eight-hour working day starting at 8 am. But it wasn't until the 1940s that the first Labour government made the eight-hour day a standard working condition for the majority of New Zealand employees.

Throughout the hundred odd years it took for this to happen, the impetus for change was maintained through frequent worker agitation, and one such method was an annual Labour Day celebration. The first New Zealand Labour Day was celebrated on 28 October 1890. That date was the first anniversary of the establishment of the Maritime Council, an organisation of transport and mining unions. To celebrate the occasion and as part of an ongoing campaign for an official eight-hour day, the Maritime Council asked the other union organisations, the Trades Councils, to observe 28 October as a public holiday.

Around the country, workers united in the Labour Day celebrations, with parades in the main cities, picnics and sporting events for all-comers. In Auckland, as secretary of the local Trades and Labour Council, my paternal great-great-grandfather Fred Bust was the man called upon to organise the day's events.

This image is reproduced from the New Zealand Observer and Free Lance newspaper of 11 October 1890 (p.8). The caption reads: ‘The modern Nero; King Miller fiddling while New Zealand is being ruined. Music Galore! Fun for all! Mr Secretary Bust’s advertisement of Eight Hours Demonstration.’ The ‘King Miller’ refers to John Millar, a militant unionist who was at that time leader of the Maritime Council.


It is immediately obvious from the Observer's cartoon that the newspaper was critical of the planned celebrations, and this depiction of Fred Bust, as a rather rotund man dancing with a bottle of grog in hand, verges on the cruel. Fred was, in fact, a sober and religious person, a family man and a practising Methodist, but he never hesitated to voice his opinions. His loquacity and his physique made him a prime target for the cartoonist's pen.

Despite the newspaper’s criticism, Fred’s preparations continued apace and he sent a formal request to the Auckland City Council for their permission to hold the celebratory picnic on the grassy slopes of Mt Eden. It seems many employers and some members were keen for the Council to refuse permission but, as fate would have it, Nature intervened and a torrential downpour led to the postponement of the Labour Day celebrations on 28 October. The New Zealand Observer and Free Lance (p.1) reported the news:

Jupiter Pluvius has won the day for the employers of labour who objected to the proposed general holiday for the Eight Hours Demonstration. Mayor and Councillors, elected by the popular vote, would undoubtedly have given way and proclaimed the 28th of October a holiday; but the drenching rain supplied them with a plausible pretext for spoiling the plans of Labour without seeming to throw cold water over them. It is to the credit of the Labour leaders that they promptly recognised the finger of Providence and gratefully deferred their principle demonstration to the Prince of Wales’s birthday. Compromise and concession are the foundation of social harmony, and I sincerely trust the coming holiday will be observed with a hearty good feeling by all classes of the community.

Fortunately, a public holiday was imminent, the annual observance of the birthday of HRH Albert, Prince of Wales, so the Labour Day celebration was rescheduled to take place on that day. The unions, trades councils and their supporters were able to enjoy their festivities and the employers didn’t lose an extra day’s production – a positive and face-saving outcome for all parties.

The text of the New Zealand Observer and Free Lance’s cartoon of 1 November 1890 (p.5) (shown above) reads:

Labour and loyalty vanquish the demonstration damper.
28th October. Mayor Upton -- ‘Bless you, Jupiter Pluvius; you have got the City Fathers out of a difficulty. We didn’t want to refuse the ground, but now we must!’
10th November. Mr Bust -- ‘God bless you, Albert Edward -- we are both socialists, you know! Now we shall have a proper reconciliation of all classes, music galore and fun for all!

In spite of the problems beforehand, by all accounts the first Labour Day celebrations were a huge success. As this final illustration from the 15 November 1890 edition of the New Zealand Observer and Free Lance (p.18) shows, over 10,000 Aucklanders marched behind ornate floats decorated with colourful Union banners from the central city to Mt Eden, where the crowds then enjoyed picnics and sporting competitions. The illustration’s text reads: ‘Sketches of the labour demonstration and sports. Typ[ists] Ass[ociation] and the Devil. The Employers' Association viewing the Procession. The Butchers' Display. The Tailoresses' Race.’

Fred Bust's granddaughter Lilian Arthur recalled this particularly memorable event when writing the obituary of her grandfather that was published in the Auckland Star, 14 March 1919: 

One event ... stands out as a remarkable testimony of the moderate precedent and careful management of the interest, not only of the workers, but the community generally, namely, the great procession of unionists organised by the Trades and Labour Council. Some eleven thousand workers marched with banners flying and bands playing through the city to the top of Mt Eden, then lined round inside the crater to hear an address from Pastor Birch of the Baptist Tabernacle, also speeches of other leaders of religious, political and labour opinions. An outstanding feature of that day’s proceedings was the perfect order and discipline secured by the leaders of the movement. That earned for Mr Bust and his fellow officials high praise from all classes.

So, this Labour Day, when you’re out enjoying your walk along the beach or firing up the barbie or planting your tomato seedlings, spare a thought for those early battlers, like my great-great-granddaddy Fred, who fought to bring us this annual day off.