history, Personal story

On the history and meaning of the eight hour day

Today, something a little different.

I have been looking over my old digital writing files: fragments, half-done essays, pain-ridden diaries and so on.  This lifelong testimony reminded me of the difficulty I have experienced in becoming the writer who I am.

But amongst all that pain has been some achievement, even if there has been little recognition of those works.

So today I thought I would post the article published from my doctoral thesis on the history of the building industry in nineteenth century Victoria, and the culture that emerged celebrating the eight hour day.

2006 Rich J Traditions and significance of 8 hour day for building unionists

You can also read this article in its published form here: Julie Kimber, Peter Love, The time of their lives: the eight hour day and working life, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Melbourne, 2007.

I wrote this article by editing one of the chapters from my PhD thesis, about 14 years after completing the thesis. By that time I had abandoned dreams of working as an academic historian, and was working in the public service. I had passed up the opportunity to rewrite my PhD as a book, despite a half offer from Cambridge University Press. I had no connections and no network of support to make my way in that world, and was struggling to make my way in a new career in government, despite the constant doubts about my purpose and suspicions that I would never belong in this culture. Then, fourteen years later, I got wind of plans to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the eight hour day, in part sponsored by the Victorian Government. I wrote an email to Terry Moran, who was then head of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, suggesting I should play some kind of role in the celebrations, and was ignored. But I made contact with the conference organisers, and suggested I give a paper from my thesis.

Editing the chapter of the thesis had its challenges. I had lost touch with the academic world,  and felt no affiliation with the clapped out Marxist culture of the Society of Labour History. I no longer inhabited the mental universe, filled with ideas from Foucault that saw class as a form of the truth/power all mixed up with a more authentic perspective inherited from E.P. Thompson to save these unionists from the condescension of posterity. I also soon found that my digital files of my thesis, written in WordPerfect (does anyone remember that word processing program, with its blue screen and flashing cursor?) were corrupt and unreadable after so many years. So, I scanned the pages of my thesis using an OCR photocopier, and slowly corrected all the formatting mistakes and misrecognitions of words and footnotes.

I gave the paper at the conference at the University of Melbourne in June 2006. I spoke to a full lecture hall – one of the few occasions when I have performed in this way. I remember I stayed briefly after giving my talk, feeling out of place, and returned back to work in the afternoon.

The story I told in this article still has resonance for me. It was a story about how, even in the apparently material conditions that defined work and industrial conflict, the meaning of events were inseparable from the striving for recognition and the webs of significance that we, culture-making beings, weave through the time of our lives.

Image source: National Museum of Australia

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