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Workers Museum

The Workers Museum at Trades Hall

Officially opened in December 2019… and shortly thereafter shut down due to the COVID-19!
We are looking forward to welcoming visitors in 2022.

Until then, you can explore our collection of artefacts from working people’s campaigns through history, right here with our virtual tour.

Take the virtual tour here: 

"We swear by the southern cross to stand truly by each other"

There is no flag in old Europe half so beautiful as the ‘Southern Cross’ of the Ballarat miners, first hoisted on the old spot, Bakery Hill… Lalor, who now knelt down, the head uncovered, and with the right hand pointing to the standard exclaimed in a firm measured tone: - ‘WE SWEAR BY THE SOUTHERN CROSS TO STAND TRULY BY EACH OTHER, AND FIGHT TO DEFEND OUR RIGHTS AND LIBERTIES’

 I call on my fellow diggers, irrespective of nationality, religion or colour, to salute the Southern Cross as the refuge of all oppressed from all countries on earth.”

Rafaello Carboni’s account of its first raising shows just how potent a symbol of workers’ rights the Eureka Flag has always been. Over decades since it was torn from the stockade on that night of bloody infamy in 1854, pieces of the original flag were cut off and given as souvenirs to visiting dignitaries. When the fragment you see before you was auctioned in 2017, union members raised funds to keep it on public display for the enjoyment of all working people. 

After the stockade, the Eureka flag was raised by striking shearers at Barcaldine in 1891, by striking waterside workers at Port Kembla in 1939, and thousands of other workplace disputes to this day. The “rebel flag” represents a pivotal moment of workers collectively organizing not just for material wealth, but for civil and political power.

It’s such a politically charged symbol of unionism, in fact, that the Australian Building and Construction Commission has sought to ban it from even appearing on government building sites - right down to banning stickers on helmets like the one shown here.

Eight hours to work,
Eight hours to play,
Eight hours to sleep,
Eight bob a day.
A fair day’s work,
For a fair day’s pay.

On 21 April 1856 stonemasons working on the University of Melbourne downed tools and marched to the Belvedere Hotel, demanding a radical improvement in working conditions not yet won anywhere else in the world: a limited 8 hour working day, with no loss of pay.

Owing partly to the scarcity of skilled labour in Melbourne and the staunch spirit of the united workers, employers soon gave in to the 8 hours movement's demands. This pioneering achievement was celebrated on 12 May that year with a march and dinner, with speeches, games and fireworks - the genesis of an annual march and celebration that became an important cultural institution for over a century, and is still celebrated today as “Labour Day”.

Organising the 8 hours procession became a prestigious duty in Melbourne’s flourishing union movement, with committee members flaunting buttons such as the one in this case. The 8 hours committee would coordinate the floats and displays of each union and arrange for sporting activities, games and attractions for workers to enjoy during the celebration.  These were huge occasions: up to 25,000 people were estimated to enjoy the amusements in 1886.

The success of the campaign for an 8 hour day was also commemorated with Melbourne’s 8 hour monument. The original model for it, shown here, ultimately proved too costly for the working-class benefactors to produce. The monument we know today was moved from Parliament to opposite Trades Hall in 1924.

Female confectioners at the 888 hour rally during the 1920's. They are in an elaborately decorated horse drawn carriage
Female confectioners union at the 8 hours march. 

While the 8 hour day processions lasted, they were a hugely significant part of Melbourne’s social fabric and one of the biggest events in the colony each year.

Victorian union members went all out to show off their wares - this armour, for example, was made by members of the United Tinsmiths & Sheet Metal Workers Society for wearing in the processions from the 1880s.

In 1884, The Argus reported that:

The tinsmiths made a unique show, and attracted more attention than any other society out for the day. Three men in bright tin armour were a reminiscence of mediaeval times, but the armour, although it flashed gaily in the sunlight, would have been of little use to the Crusaders when opposed to Saracen spear heads. Two of the ‘knights of the soldering iron’ were mounted.

The armour was evidently in use for several decades, as another somewhat less charitable reporter went on to remark in 1921 that the tinsmiths 

“were so tightly encased in their cuirasses that the very idea of getting out of them suggested the need for a tin-opener”.

The armour as worn by the tin smiths in the 8 hours parades

The Tinsmiths’ armour display was certainly unique, but all Victorian unions made great efforts to show off their craft skills from the vantage of their procession float. The stonemasons were known to haul a huge block of stone on their lorry; the printers operatives once distributed pamphlets from a working printing press on their float; furniture makers displayed an entire drawingroom suite, and the displays from the Felt Hatters were said to strike horror in the hearts of small animals for miles.   

Marcella Pearce's childhood memories of the 8 hour day processions of the 1930s give a glimpse of what a grand occasion they were, from humble beginnings in 1856 until they were replaced with the Moomba Parade in 1955.

“I believe the 8 Hours Day processions were extremely important during the late 1920s and through to the year the Second World War was declared, because of the terrible Depression which had wrought devastation throughout the world… People could enjoy, for no cost, the 8 Hours Day celebrations, which was truly the day for the workers of Victoria to show off their skills and their loyalty to each other. The Trades Hall was a focal point of great significance in their lives and threw a protective arm around those who fought for justice and food for their families. The solidarity of workers in those days was a binding force.”

The tin smiths head up a procession at the 8 hours march. They are on horseback and wearing the armour they had made for themselves. Behind them are people holding banners.
Tin smiths in their armour creations at the 8 hours march, 1884.

“A people’s palace…
built and own’d by hardy sons of toil...”

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.

The former female operatives hall

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 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.

You can read more about the restoration of Trades Hall on the Lovell Chen website.

"No means of redress unless we strike!"

In the 1880s, Victoria was rightly earning a reputation for militant union organising, and three early strikes in this period – the Tailoresses strike, the bootmakers strike, and the wharf labourers strike – would have dramatic consequences for Australia’s workplace relations at the start of the 20th Century.

In 1883, clothing manufacturer Beith Shiess & Co attempted to reduce the meagre piece-rate wages of Melbourne's tailoresses. At a meeting at Trades Hall, the tailoresses formed a trade union, called Melbourne's first major strike, and gained broad labour movement support. The tailoresses' catalogue of suggested piece rates became known as a “log of claims” – phraseology still used by today’s unionists in negotiations with bosses. The striking women not only won significant improvements to their wages and conditions, but also challenged public notions of “respectable femininity”.

political cartoon from 1883 of a "trouser famine" depicting men having tea with no trousers.

Over the same period, the Operative Bootmakers Union had negotiated with employers for two years before taking strike action in 1884. President Billy Trenwith secured the support of unions in Victoria and other colonies to raise funds for the strike - eventually settled by a new board of conciliation in workers' favour.

Workers in union were winning huge victories - so when shipowners tried to restrict Maritime Officers' ability to unionise, Trades Hall organised wharf labourers, gas stokers, coalminers, transport unionists and shearers in four colonies to strike in support. 60,000 people joined the strike. But after their defeat by the bootmakers, employers had learned to organise, too. They hired "scab" workers, refused to negotiate, and engaged the police and private militias to break the strikers. The unions, drained of resources, were crushed.

These three strikes at the close of the 19th Century  represent some of the huge changes that   defined  the relationship between labour and capital in Australia at the time of federation. There was optimism  for what workers could achieve together in a new country, but employers were also entrenching their institutional power  and writing laws to suppress organising efforts. Labour needed political representation.

"For the benefit of labour"

Facing unjust laws that limited the right to organize, working people hit upon the idea of forming a political party to advance their interests. The resulting relationship has not always been easy and close, but workers in union continue to campaign strategically for electoral advantage.

Before the Labor Party was even conceived of though, there had been attempts to send working class men to state parliament, albeit with limited success. The first of these, Charles Jardine Don, whose bust is on display in this case, was elected to the seat of Collingwood in 1859.

Don, a Scottish Chartist who came to Australia in search of gold, later became a stonemason and key figure in the 8 hours movement in Victoria. Upon winning election, he proudly claimed to be the first working class man represented in 'any legislature within the British Empire'.

Needing to earn a living in the days before Members of Parliament were paid a wage, Charles Don could claim the curious distinction of having two entirely different careers at Parliament House at the same time. During the day, he plied his trade as a stonemason on the unfinished building itself, before stepping inside of an evening to represent the early labour movement as a legislator.

The Labour Party had several changes of name in the 1890s – called the Progressive Political League, United Labor and Liberal Party of Victoria, and eventually the Political Labor Council before becoming the Victorian branch of the ALP. he temporary location of the first Australian Parliament at the Royal Exhibition building, not far from here, made Trades Hall a natural location for the formation and base for the Federal Labor Party.

Trades Hall was also the natural venue for a victory party at the election of Australia’s – and the world’s – first Labor government in 1904, and remained the headquarters of the party’s Victorian branch right up until 1972, when it relocated to larger offices just a block away.

"The people's flag is deepest red"

The Red Flag has flown over Trades Hall since 1918 as a symbol of solidarity with the International Labour Movement. Its first appearance, at a Trades Hall Council meeting in 1918, was "greeted with hearty acclamation". Almost immediately, however, the Federal Government issued a prohibition against flying the flag.

Writing to Trades Hall on the issue, acting Prime Minister William Watt appealed to nationalistic sentiment, arguing

That decision at this crucial war period is a direct challenge to the patriotic sentiments of a large majority of Australian citizens… I feel that the relatives and friends of those who are fighting for the liberty and safety of our country and race should be spared this indignity.

Trades Hall President E.F Russell’s reply was swift:

I do not consider the red flag to be a menace to anyone but tyrants who are fattening and battening on the workers of every country – profiteers. (The flag) expresses the hope that the workers of the world one day will be united to prevent all wars and bring universal peace and brotherhood to all mankind.

The decision to fly the flag in direct defiance of the Federal Government was not taken lightly; the Lift Attendants Union left the Hall in protest over the controversy.

Despite decades of controversy the Red Flag, along with the Eureka and Aboriginal flags, still flies over Trades Hall to this day, a constant reminder of the international solidarity that is essential to the future of workers movements around the world. We demonstrate this solidarity through support for international workers’ campaigns such as the struggle against apartheid.

The many union badges arranged in this case testify to the dramatic changes in union organisation over the past 160 years. Each of these first five boards represents a union that exists today – often formed from the amalgamation of many smaller craft or trade unions. For example, today’s United Workers Union was formed in 2019 when the National Union of Workers amalgamated with United Voice. United Voice, once known as “The Missos”, was itself an amalgamation of unions such as the “Barmaids and Barmen”,  union, the Pastrycooks and biscuit makers, and the Saddlery and Leather Workers Trades Employees Federation. The membership of these unions has changed; with riding saddles in considerably less demand now than in the nineteenth century.

Other unions, like the United Firefighters Union, have thrived without reorganisation or amalgamation. 

All of the unions represented here – and many more – were at one time or other affiliated to the Victorian Trades Hall Council; with members and delegates meeting in this very room to discuss the issues of the day.

At a national level, the "Inter-colonial Trade Union Congress" met for the first time in 1879, but the Australian Council of Trade Unions – or ACTU -  was not officially formed until 1927, here at Trades Hall. 

The solidarity shown between workers of different unions remains the most powerful force for social and economic justice in Australia – and is a continual source of fear for the powers of capital.  

"We left Australia freemen, keep us so!"

letter_from_hughes.jpg

Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes wrote to Trades Hall, clearly incensed to hear that the labour movement were organising against his efforts to introduce conscription in WWI. He was right to worry - workers in union would lead a brilliant campaign to defeat conscription in two successive referenda on the issue in 1916 and 1917. Australia was the only democratic nation to defeat conscription in this way.  We commemorated this victory with a mural just inside the Hall’s Lygon Street entrance.

Trades hall wrapped in anti conscription banners during WWI

The materials in this case relate to that mighty campaign, and to the union movement’s ongoing role in opposing war, from the Vietnam moratoriums to the campaign for nuclear disarmament.

"A place where workmen may their minds engage"

A place where workmen may their minds engage
To useful purpose o'er the printed page
- One which the tints of age may haply show
Or one which caught the ink an hour ago: -
A hall where wife and children may be found
To listen to a concert of sweet sound,
Or hear the lecturer and quickly learn
What years of study teach him to discern

- Charles Bright

The poet Charles Bright’s description of the future Trades Hall encompasses all the grandest ambitions for a “people’s palace”. This was to be a place advancing not just the material conditions of the working class, but its spiritual and artistic needs too.

At the Artisans school of design, formed in 1859 in the timber Trades Hall, working-class men had the opportunity to learn aspects of the fine arts.  With courses led by famous artists such as Louis Buvolet, the artisans school would provide the first taste of high art painting to some of Australia’s most famous painters like Tom Roberts, and Frederick McCubbin.

Frederick McCubbin recalled his Trades Hall experience in his notes:

… the following Friday evening saw me off to the Trades Hall School of Design, Lygon Street, Carlton, sitting on the stairs of the old wooden building waiting for eight o'clock when the school opened… Well I was in seventh heaven, I had really got into the palace of Art. It was a joy all day while trying to knock out rusty bolts and help tire wheels and paint and putty the same to let my mind wander over the charms of painting."

Meanwhile, other workers accessed radical ideas and philosophies through Trades Hall’s library and literary institute. At a time when literacy levels were low and books were scarce, the library served as an important resource for working class philosophers and budding politicians.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Trades Hall sought new ways to bring art and music to the working class. High in the South tower at Trades Hall, the Industrial Printing and Publicity Group burst onto the airwaves as 3KZ "Brighter Broadcasting Service" in 1930. Radio stars and trade unionists took turns entertaining and educating Melbourne listeners hungry for diversion, even as bread lines snaked from the Trades Hall steps around Victoria street. 3KZ would eventually become Gold 104.3 FM, but the South tower remains dedicated to the use of connecting art with working life: visual artists have worked from studios in the Trades Hall towers from the early eightees to present day.

During the construction of the Arts Centre's famous spire in 1984, the Builders Labourers Federation workers took action to demand better wages and conditions. Amongst their demands - a "golden ticket" for building workers and their families to attend any future productions at the arts centre, indefinitely. The letter in this case sets out the terms of a compromise - the union movement would instead be allowed to hold a production at the Arts Centre facilities on labour day each year. "Strike a light" Labour Day concerts were staged until at least 1990, but the practice mysteriously ended.

Today Trades Hall is still a meeting point for radical artists and a venue for community arts programs like The Fringe and Comedy Festival. Even the carpet you’re walking on now references Trades Hall’s artistic and spiritual ambition:

“Bread for all, but roses too”.

"He loved that damned bridge"

"Remember the dead, fight like hell for the living"

On 28 April each year, unionists recognise International Workers Memorial Day to "Remember the dead, fight like hell for the living",placing out a pair of work shoes to represent each person killed in a workplace. Each year in Victoria, nearly 30 people are killed by industrial negligence – and that’s just according to the official statistics. Many, many more workers die on our roads, or from illnesses they developed in the line of their work.   But incredibly it has taken over 20 years of campaigning to hold businesses criminally accountable for these deaths.

The recent Trades Hall campaign, supported by the families of Jack Brownlee and Charlie Howkins, met with Daniel Andrews and secured a commitment to make industrial manslaughter a crime. Workplace Manslaughter laws were passed in Victorian Parliament in November 2019.

Each shoe here represents a worker killed in the previous year to April 28 – Workers’ Memorial Day. Each shoe represents a family and community devastated by grief. We also recognise the nearly 30,000 workers who suffer serious physical and psychological injury at work.  The union movement stands with the families and communities of workers killed and injured at work, and we will continue to campaign until every worker returns home safe.

"When injustice is law, resistance is duty"

When Trades Hall was first granted the crown land on the corner of Victoria and Lygon street, conservative politicians quipped that at least they wouldn’t have far to drag us… referring to the Old Melbourne Gaol on Russel St. Then, as now, being a unionist meant coming into conflict with the laws written by a ruling class intent on repressing workers and preserving power for a privileged few.

Adela Pankhurst was a leading Women's Peace Army activist, socialist, and leader of the "Bread Riots" in which up to 3000 union and working class women defied the War Precautions Act to protest food shortages at Parliament House. In 1917 she was arrested for her role in the riot, and during her two months in Pentridge gaol was regularly serenaded by women activists, aiming to keep her spirits up.

On 15 May 1969, Clarrie O’Shea, Secretary of the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association, was jailed for refusing to pay “Penal Powers” fines accrued by the union. Over the next six days 1.5 million people struck or participated in stop-work meetings, demanding the release of O'Shea - striking for the right to strike. In Victoria transport stopped, the ports shut down and the electricity supply was disrupted. After six days, an anonymous donor paid the outstanding fines and O'Shea was freed.

John Cummins, BLF official and later CFMEU President, was no stranger to a pair of handcuffs. Cummo was arrested on numerous occasions for going onto worksites and standing up for his members. Following the BLF’s forced deregistration at the hands of the Hawke, Keating and Cain Governments, he lead BLF members across to the construction division of the CFMEU, ensuring their proudly militant traditions came with them.

Each of these unionists was driven by a philosophy that regards justice as a higher ideal than lawfulness. It is a philosophy we stand proudly by. In the words of ACTU Secretary Sally McManus:  "I believe in the rule of law when the law is fair and the law is right. But when it's unjust I don't think there's a problem with breaking it.”

"it's only people's actions that saved it in the end"

We know that union members have long campaigned for better pay and conditions. But did you know they’ve also fought to help protect green spaces, ecosystems…and some of our most beloved heritage buildings?

It all started here in Melbourne, on a patch of public open space in Carlton, which developers wanted to turn into a Kleenex factory and residents wanted to keep it as parkland for their community. Enter: the members of the Builders Labourers Federation, who showed solidarity with the residents by refusing to construct the factory. The developer even tried to bribe union leader Norm Gallagher. Norm and his comrade Mick Lewis were arrested for their role in the black ban. Normie did 3 weeks, Mick did 7 days. But eventually, everyday people triumphed. Norm and Mick were released…and the space was turned into public parkland which they named Gallagher Reserve.

It was the mighty beginnings of what became known as the Green Ban movement.

Unions in Melbourne and Sydney put the question to their rank and file members:

Do you want to live in cities, devoid of parks, trees, accessible housing and heritage buildings?

Up in Sydney, a group of women fought against construction giant AV Jennings’ plans to destroy bushland in Hunter’s Hill. The BLF not only banned work from that site, they also walked off the job on all the other AV Jennings sites around town – and it worked. The government was so threatened by the power of this multi-site  solidarity, they brought in secondary boycott laws in 1977 to stop it from happening again.

Meanwhile back in Melbourne, when the council  tried to redevelop the historic Queen Vic market, the people yet again fought back. Then there was the time the council tried to sell the Regent Theatre -and found some architects to attest the building had no heritage value. Again, the people got organised and union workers refused to demolish it.

And speaking of dirty mits, a little-known fact is that lots of union organisers used to take a morning dip in the Melbourne City Baths. So when the council tried to demolish yet another beloved historic building of Melbourne, the swimmers got organised yet again.

Union workers and community groups also triumphed in saving  the Windsor Hotel from demolition in 1976 and protected Melbourne’s beloved Botanical Gardens from copping an all-night restaurant and carpark. All around the country, green bans helped save special places from development and demolition.

And here’s another little-known fact about the green bans…when a young German activist named Petra Kelly came to Sydney in the mid 70s and saw the success of their environmentally-focussed, democratic, political action she returned to Germany with Jack Mundey, who was a key activist and leader of the NSW’s Builders Labourers Federation and before long, Petra introduced green bans activism there. She went on to start up ‘The German Green Party’ in 1979 – which is thought to be the first ever Greens party in the world!

So as we know, from little things, big things grow.

The green bans represents working people fighting for greater economic democracy - for the right to determine how their labour is used, and the impact it has on the environment and the community. It was about everyday people coming together not just to improve their own working lives, but to change the world for the next generation.

From Gay Liberation joining the May Day Committee in 1974 to the Gay Teachers and Students Group’s formation in 1975; from the "AIDS quilt" project at Trades Hall to the Plumbers Union's radical promise to fight discrimination as an industrial issue, LGBTIQ+ workers have a proud history of organising in union to make change. Unions' support for the 2017 Marriage Equality campaign was built on decades of work by LGBTIQ+ unionists.

In anticipation of the Liberal Government calling a postal vote on marriage equality, Trades Hall had established a LGBTIQ+ workers campaign team in 2016. It’s goal was to test the effectiveness of a ground campaign, using the 2016 federal election as a field experiment.

So immediately as the 2017 postal survey on marriage equality was announced, the Trades Hall campaign machine was ready to go.. Within hours, posters were ordered. Voter enrolment drives at universities across Australia were coordinated with the National Union of Students. Door knocks, phone banks and street stalls were a daily occurrence as Trades Hall became the hub of Victoria’s Marriage Equality campaign.

On 15 November 2017 it was announced that Australia had voted overwhelmingly for equality.  

2,145,629 Victorians, or 64.9%, voted YES! – the highest of any state. That night, when the LGBTIQ community was looking to celebrate, they knew where to come. Around 20,000 people, including the Victorian Premier, Federal Opposition Leader and Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, celebrated on a rainbow-hued Lygon Street outside Trades Hall.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander comrades are warned the following video depicts people who have since passed.

"Which side are you on?"

What does a modern strike look like? Well, for a start, it might be illegal.

When Victorian nurses stopped work in 1986, they did so in defiance of the Industrial Relations Commission, a Labor State Government seeking to cut hospital funding, and a Federal Labor government seeking to enact wage restraint under “The Accord”. Police dragged nurses along the ground outside Royal Melbourne Hospital, and Victorian Health Minister David White threatened nurses with manslaughter charges. But ultimately, striking nurses triumphed. 

Conversely, when the bosses of Patricks Stevedores used hired goons to forcibly remove workers from their usual workplace in 1998, locking them out and replacing them with scabs trained overseas in secret, it was done with the full backing of the Federal Government.

When the bosses of Patricks Stevedores used hired goons to forcibly remove workers from their usual workplace in 1998, locking them out and replacing them with scabs trained overseas in secret, it was done with the full backing of the Federal Government, and the workers’ picket was repeatedly attacked by police.

Today, even a one-day work stoppage can see workers and union officials fined or prosecuted under draconian industrial relations laws. Unions and all their officials are often injuncted – or legally stopped – from taking strike action; with courts falling in behind the bosses.

Breaching these injunctions can lead to fines or gaol time, leaving the community to form assemblies to maintain the picket. We’ve had union officials and delegates fined up to $40,000 for coming to city wide rallies, and workers locked out of their work sites for taking action.

But workers in union continue to take on personal hardship, intimidation and face down legal threats in order to unite and strike, and they’re winning.

For example, in 2019, a group of precariously employed migrant workers went on strike at Chemist Warehouse. After a long strike and a tough struggle, that included injuries, they secured a 22% pay rise.

Workers aren’t afraid of a stacked system. Unity and discipline during strike action demonstrate a commitment to the fight for the working class.

As bosses find more ways to keep workers’ pay and conditions down, they’re prepared to take strike action to fight back and show their power.

Which side are you on?

"the normal needs of... a human being living in a civilised community"

The bludgeoning weapons in this case testify to the reality that winning dignity for workers is not always a dignified process. These crude batons were reputedly seized from communist “dole strikers” seeking to storm the Trades Hall Council and bludgeon conservative union leaders, who, in their view, weren’t doing enough to support an increase to unemployment benefits.

Violent factionalism notwithstanding, this case also reflects a proud history of collective action. The working rights we take for granted today – like the minimum wage, annual leave, the weekend, and retirement savings - were all once radical demands put by working people with a bold vision.

In many cases unionists are still fighting to retain the conditions won a hundred years ago or more.

Take, for example, the Sunshine Harvester judgement of 1907, which determined that employers must pay a minimum wage that was sufficient for “a human being in a civilized community” to support their family in “frugal comfort”, regardless of the employer’s capacity to pay. While that decision set the precedent for the minimum wage protections we still have today, workers trying to live on award minimum wages know that these wages are a far cry from the “living wage” unions campaign for.

And while workers in union have progressively won campaigns to limit working hours, thousands of Australian workers are seeing those benefits eroded by casualised and insecure forms of employment, where working hours are far from guaranteed. 

Today unionists continue to defend these rights, even as we advance new claims for dignity at work.

"The unity of labour is the hope of the world"

Union attitudes to migrants have long been contested. Even at the beginning of the 20th Century, some unionists understood solidarity between workers of different nationalities as “the hope of the world”, with at least one brave comrade at a meeting of the Geelong Trades Hall calling for solidarity and material support to striking Chinese unionists.  But other unionists bought into the idea of migrant labour as a threat – an idea often eagerly encouraged by employers seeking to divide workers from each other.

In the 19th Century, Melbourne's Chinese cabinetmakers were well unionised, and had even attempted to donate funds to the 1890 maritime strike – but the funds, which were initially accepted with gratitude, were returned after the white cabinetmakers’ union complained to Trades Hall. But being locked out of white unionists’ organising appears to have had little effect on the Chinese Cabinetmakers. In 1903, they organised a huge, coordinated strike across more than seven factories, culminating in hundreds of strikers rioting in Chinatown. The bosses backed down, and most of the strikers demands were met.

 

In the post-war period, the strength and militancy of migrant workers in union began to permeate official union structures. The first conference of Migrant Workers at Trades Hall in 1973 called for a suite of radical campaign claims to improve wages and conditions, and resulted in a range of initiatives to diversify union membership and leadership, including the first Migrant Workers Centre.

Women at the Patricks picket 
Sharon Jones, 1998, "Edith Morgan and Molly Hadfield at MUA Patricks dispute 1998".

The militancy and energy of those post-war migrant unionists led to unions taking more radical positions on social issues in the 1980s, and continues to strengthen union organizing today