In a watershed moment for the recognition of working peoples’ history, Victorian Trades Hall Council has been added to the National Heritage List by the independent Australian Heritage Council.
The National Heritage List is Australia’s list of natural, historic and Indigenous places of outstanding significance to the nation.
In addition to national heritage listing, Victorian Trades Hall is part of an international bid for World Heritage recognition, which is expected to be submitted to UNESCO later this year.
The partnership between the Albanese Government and the Allan Government has been crucial in driving the UNESCO bid as part of a transnational serial nomination, which for the first time will recognise the global significance of workers assembly halls across the world.
Luke Hilakari, Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council, said the listing was a great moment for the recognition of working people in world heritage. “We are enormously proud that this building is receiving recognition for its place in Australian history and its contribution to improving workers’ rights globally. Victorian Trades Hall is the oldest still functioning union building in the world. It is the finest example of the power of working people, contributing whatever little money they could to build a lasting institution to organise for a better, fairer future.”
The national heritage listing and international bid was announced by the Hon. Tanya Plibersek MP, at Trades Hall on 11 October. Her speech was brilliant, so we've published it below.
THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER
SPEECH ON THE HERITAGE LISTING OF VICTORIAN TRADES HALL
WEDNESDAY 11 OCTOBER 2023
Friends, this is a special day.
We’re here to celebrate a beautiful building, a landmark of Melbourne, a triumph of neoclassical architecture.
But more importantly, we’re here to celebrate the countless people who have given life and meaning to this building over the years.
The thousands and thousands of people who have walked up those stairs. Planning, organising, gossiping, falling in love. Making deals. Occasionally breaking deals. But always dreaming big. Always pushing against injustice.
Always agitating for a fairer, more inclusive, more ambitious Australia. Trades Hall is now part of the landscape, part of the scenery. But we can’t forget just how radical this building was in the 19th century. It came from a simple but revolutionary idea: That working people deserved the best. Not just the scraps that were offered to them. Not a cheap imitation of the ruling class. But the best materials, the best design, the best architects. And the early unionists made that statement for a reason.
When this building was going up, working class people in the city were living in crowded slum housing, often with five, six, seven people to a room. Trades Hall must have seemed like a palace to those people. And not a palace built for the vanity of royals or the glory of elites. But a palace built for the education, the growth, and the power of ordinary people.
It was the power of the collective, the power of solidarity, the power of labour to change the world. And no one could ever deny that the people of Trades Hall have changed the world. If these walls could talk, they would first need to be heavily censored. But they could tell us a story – the story of modern Australia.
In fact, it would be hard to think of a place where more of our history has played out. Australians first learned about the end of World War Two from a microphone at Trades Hall. Arthur Caldwell was here for a meeting, when he received a phone call informing him of the Japanese surrender. This was when Trades Hall had its own radio station, so Arthur raced up to the studio to announce the news directly.
Which is not the only time people have starting dancing in the street outside this building. I wasn’t here for election night 2007, but I’m told the Bennelong results generated a similar response. As did the marriage equality after party.Through war and depression, through peace and progress, the great debates of Australian life have been conducted in these rooms.
This is where we remember the stonemasons who won the eight hour day. It’s where the Labor Party decided its final policy against conscription. It’s where Zelda D’Aprano came up with her plan to chain herself to the Commonwealth Bank in support of equal pay. It’s where the Victorian suffragettes met and organised and won the vote. It’s where the union movement led the fight against Apartheid, earning Nelson Mandela’s eternal friendship and gratitude. It’s where we killed WorkChoices – dead, buried and cremated.
It’s where we destroyed the terrible Tony Abbott budget. And it’s where the next generation of workers are organising, with the Migrant Workers Centre and the Young Workers Centre.
Whenever collective power is required, whenever big questions need to be answered, people find themselves at Trades Hall. Australians have gathered here to discuss every matter under the sun. From the great questions of state to the passion projects of individual unionists. One of my favourites was a debate from 1905, over a motion to create the Trade Union Total Abstinence League. This was introduced by a certain Delegate Brown, who argued that: ‘There may be good unionists who have not abstained, but they were even better when they left the drink alone’.
Delegate Brown received a polite hearing, but he didn’t entirely convince all the members present. As Delegate Elliott responded: ‘Some of the best men who I have ever worked with took their liquor. And some one of the worst cusses I have ever known were total abstainers’. Now, it’s not my job to adjudicate between the two delegates. All I will say is – there are data points on both sides of the debate.
Friends, it’s my great honour to announce the national heritage listing of Victorian Trades Hall today. And I’m committed as Minister to supporting and securing its eventual inclusion on the World Heritage List.
This is part of a wider union push, an international push, to recognise workers history as much as we honour the memory of the rich and powerful. It’s a campaign to rebalance the picture, to give a more accurate representation of our heritage. At Trades Hall we have history. Real, breathing, living history, of the people who built this country. And of the people who continue to transform it.
When you stand in this room, when you visit this building, you realise what it means to be part of a movement. A movement that connects us to something bigger than ourselves, over time, across national boundaries, to working people everywhere. So thank you again for coming out this morning. It’s an honour stand with you today and every day.