The 8 Hours Movement couldn’t keep meeting in local pubs indefinitely, and so, just weeks after winning the 8 hour day in 1856, a committee of stonemasons presented a report recommending:
that a Trades Hall or Institute be formed, in which each society shall have its own committee room, but only one general lecture room open to all the trades; also separate for classes, open to all; and a reading room or coffee room, free to all the members of the various trades, Sundays and weekdays, which unite in this object.
A modest timber shed on this site was constructed in 1859, but it took until 1874 for the first permanent building to be finished. This makes Victorian Trades Hall the oldest continuously operating union building in the world.
Since it was built and financed directly by workers themselves, construction was completed in a number of separate stages, represented by the set of ceremonial trowels in this case.
A 200-seat “Female Operatives Hall” was built behind Trades Hall in 1884 to accommodate the explosion in women’s organising. You can’t visit this building today – shamefully, it was torn down in the 1960s to accommodate car parking.
The same period, under Secretary JV Stout, saw the magnificent murals in the Victoria Street and Lygon Street entryways covered over with surplus WWII paint. Painstaking restoration work has uncovered some of these historic honour boards and murals. The painting was likely a cheap and misguided effort to address union members’ concerns with the deteriorating state of the hall. In 1951, the President of the Australian Workers Union complained that the 250 employees at Trades Hall suffered worse working conditions than his members in outback wool sheds. Unionists used gas heaters to keep the chill away – with devastating consequences. The New Council Chamber was gutted by fire in 1963.
It was fixed up on the cheap – a mess of green vinyl and aluminium cladding – and stayed that way until the chamber you’re standing in now was restored in 2019. The murals above the stage date from 1911 - but the rest of Solidarity Hall has been designed as a worthy organising space for today's workers in union.