Unions, Sport and Community

Remember when sport was a fun way to relax after arduous labour? The fight for the eight-hour work day was based around a slogan that said, in part, eight hours work, eight hours play. The play was unpaid and unsung, but enjoyable.

‘Trade Union Olympics’: money and drug free games
Sports days were regularly run by union committees in all parts of Australia. In Western Australia, the goldfields areas were union strongholds, and the Collie area, for example, had an Eight-Hour Demonstration Sports Day from 1903. These sports days were a feature until the 1960s. The days began as expressions of union solidarity but gradually took on a broader community focus.

The eastern goldfields Eight Hours Sports in 1911 illustrated this. It featured children’s fixtures, track and field athletics, bicycle racing, wrestling, an axeman’s carnival, goat races, ‘kicking the football’ competition, national dancing and a merry-go-round. In 1913 a fire brigades competition was added, in 1914 a first-aid display and in 1915 a scouts relay race. Some of these events related directly to work skills; for instance, woodline workers usually competed in the log chop. But by and large the labour movement was organising a local community sports carnival and inviting the Caledonian Society, Athletic League, Fire Brigade, WA League of Wheelmen, State School Athletics Association and other relevant sporting association to provide their expertise for specific competitions. (from Organise!: a visual record of the labour movement in Western Australia by Lenore Layman and Julian Goddard; published by the Trades and Labour Council of W.A., 1988).

The Sydney Eight-Hour Day and Labour Demonstration Committee Annual Report reported on the fun of its sports day of 1930, held at the “Agricultural Ground”. In Sydney in the midst of the Great Depression, the day had “ideal weather conditions”, and “was the largest and most comprehensive ever organised by the committee. For five and a half hours the arena was occupied by motor-cycle races, events for all branches of athletics, events for members of Unions and their families, and numerous competitions and contests for school children. Outside the arena wood-chopping contests, side-shows and exhibitions provided an added attraction for the entertainment of patrons.”

Since it was 1930 and unemployment was at record high levels, attendances were low, to the disappointment of organisers. The principle event, the Eight-Hour Cup, was won by W.H. Cooper, East Sydney A.A.C., after a keen contest.

As with the Olympics this year, the organisers were concerned about size and costs. “Compared with last year the sports showed an appreciable reduction in costs, despite the increase in the number of events, and this was most gratifying to all concerned. The fact, however, of such a huge programme being necessary received serious and careful consideration, and while it is generally recognised that a smaller or less varied programme on an arena such as the Agricultural Ground would not be satisfactory from spectacular point of view the Committee consider that some change is desirable.”

The Committee also conducted its annual Night Carnival, it being at the Sydney Sports Ground. “Fireworks, athletics and massed displays by school children provided a most interesting and attractive programme. But, as was to be expected, in view of the serious financial state of many in the industrial section of the community, the attendance did not reach the number which it has been our pleasure to record in past years.

A special feature of the Carnival, which caused much interest, was the Unions’ Championship Tug-of-War Competition, in which seven teams were entered. The event was won by the Liquor Trade Employee’ team after an extraordinarily exciting contest. The Solomon Shield was handed to the winners in scenes of much jubilation by the Tramway Employee’s team, which had already held it for four years. The Tramway Employees’ team won the shield outright in 1928, and, with fine sporting spirit, re-donated it for competition in 1929, in which they were again successful. The team congratulated the winners, and promised a keen contest for the recovery of the laurels of victors on the next occasion.”

The Union “Torch Relay”
The street procession was an annual feature of union community events too. The processions were a direct continuation of the marches that took place to demand an eight-hour day. The processions became a way for the unions to highlight aspects of work, with unions developing banners for the parades and sometimes having demonstrations of the work they did. In Kalgoorlie the AWU regularly had a float with shearing going on whilst it went down the street.

As the event grew older and further away from the battle for the eight-hour day, the community feel grew. In Collie, for example, in 1959 the Women’s Fitness Club took part, and in 1960 the Horse and Pony Club and the Judo Club put on displays, and the Collie Industrial Co-operative Society displayed a “power mower turning jungle into grass.”

The Sydney event in 1930 was “as usual responsible for a large gathering along the route. The displays, which were of a purely political nature, were not as numerous as could be expected. But those which were entered for the various competitions provided the judges with an arduous and unenviable task.” Some of the winners were:

  • the Liquor Trades and the Australian Glass Workers for the Best Dressed and Dressed Teams of Horses, four and six horses.;
  • Marching Competition won by the Amalgamated Printers;
  • Burlesque Display was won by W. Boyd of the Municipal Employees.
  • The largest proportionate attendance was provided by the Farriers
    From the Sydney Eight-Hour and Demonstration Committee Report of 1930.
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