|The voice of Victorian workers since 1856: The Victorian Trades Hall Council offers support and co-ordination to local union activities and campaigns.|
Victorian Trades Hall Council comprises 60 affiliated unions representing an estimated 400,000 members.
The Council of the Victorian Trades Hall meets monthly with delegates representing all affiliated organisations. It is the major industrial, political and social forum for Victorian unionists. The Council has the power under its rules to consider and make policy on any matter - political, industrial and otherwise.
Victorian Trades Hall
As the grand old dame of Carlton approaches her 150th birthday, she is increasingly finding favour with younger generations as well as her long time union lovers.
Walking through Trades Hall is like taking a ghost tour through Melbourne's union history.
Above the main staircase, near a mural commemorating the architects of the eight hour day campaign, four bullet holes pepper the wall.
According to Trades Hall legend, the bullet holes are bloody reminders of a Typographical Society ballot gone horribly wrong.
Unlikely as it now sounds, anti-conscription arguments raged in 1915, and seats on the Typographical Society were hotly contested. A seat on the society's leadership team affected the make-up of Trades Hall Council, which meant a say in the ALP's conscription policy.
Folklore has it that at 2.30am on October 1, three men broke into Trades Hall to ensure the election went "the right way". Alerted to the burglary, three policemen clambered through a window and made off after the offenders. The two parties exchanged gunfire and a young constable, David McGrath, was struck. He died on the stairs below the mural.
Even though it is made of bluestone, the staircase has been bowed by generations of workers wearing hob-nailed boots. In parts the depression is two inches deep.
The sight never fails to move veteran Electrical Trades Union shop stewart Geoff "Hoggy" Guest.
"I think about that all the time," he says. "It blows me away. It takes a lot to wear out stone."
The staircase bears other scars from its union history.
A series of the steps are chipped, legacy of a wild party at Trades Hall to celebrate Gough Whitlam's election in 1972. As the party raged, a keg of beer slipped from a drunken comrade's shoulder and ricocheted down the stairs. No one has had the heart to repair the damage.
Whitlam, too, is part of this place. A giant portrait of the former Prime Minister rests in the landing of a side staircase, beside the ladies' toilets. Whitlam's profile radiates a slight smile towards the toilet doorway, and you can almost hear him greeting the women who pass with his trademark, "Hello, comrade!"
Trades Hall's story has two elements. There is the building - Italianate-style, grandiose and foreboding - but its interior history is more important. Within these walls activists hatched campaigns that changed the shape of the country - the federation of Australia, women's suffrage, the two-day weekend and eight-hour day, anti-conscription, annual and maternity leave and campaigns for a free East Timor, against South African apartheid, and for the end of WorkChoices.
The world's first trades hall, or workers' parliament, was built in 1859 where Trades Hall now stands. According to Trades Hall Council, the original building was a "modest timber structure with a galvanised iron roof", standing just north of the present Lygon Street entrance.
But it did not take long for the old building to be outgrown. Construction of the current building, with its bluestone foundations and rendered brick facade, began in 1874 and continued until 1933.
The stonemasons who laboured on the building left reminders of their legacy throughout. Eight pillars stand guard on the Victoria Street entrance, symbolising the campaign for the eight-hour day. The symbolism extends inside, with windows and doors throughout the building set in groups of eight.
The unions that originally occupied Trades Hall have long since withered. Gone are the days when an undertaker's union shared the building with unions representing candle, soap and starch workers and the Bedsted and Fender Makers association. Today 30 groups call Trades Hall home, including the Federation of Community Legal Centres, the Combined Pensioners' and Superannuates Association and the Socialist Party.
Trades Hall is one of the few places in Melbourne where it's still possible to see Troskyists and Marxists engaged in furious debate about the role of the Russian revolution on modern Socialist thought.
In keeping with this radical tradition, a red flag has flapped over Trades Hall since the 1880s. It has been diligently raised every day for nearly a decade by Trades Hall caretaker Jacob Grech.
Grech lives with his family in a self-contained house above one win of the building and his bedroom is directly above the Community Party of Australia's office.
"I've got real-life Reds under the bed, "Grech smirks. Not that he appears to mind.
As Grech hoists the red flag for TMT's photographer, his pants ride up his ankles to reveal bright red socks.
"I always wear red socks, "he laughs. "That's all I've got."
The red sock brigade was joined by Greens, unionists, Labor Party members, anarchists and more on election night in 2007, when Trades Hall's bar, the Bella Union Bar, hosted a party that would have made Whitlam proud.
As former Prime Minister John Howard's face appeared on a projection screen and he prepared to deliver his concession speech, the chants grew louder: "Waang-kerrrr". It was almost impossible to hear Howard speak, although it's doubtful that anyone there wanted to hear what he had to say.
Melbourne comedians Dave Bushell, who regularly performs at Trades Hall with the Anarchist Guild Social Committee and will stage a solo show there in April, remembers election night well.
"I was at Trades Hall the night Howard lost, I think it makes people happier to say Howard lost rather than Rudd won,"Bushell says.
Ít felt like the nexus of the universe for one night but not in a stupid David Williamson, Don's Party kind of way.
The second-biggest cheer that night was for Howard's concession speech. The biggest cheer was for Casey Bennetto (the writer of KeaTing: The Musical) delivering six slabs after the bar had run dry."
Catherine Woodfield, who has run Bella Union Bar since October 2007, says election night was a watershed, drawing politically minded young people back to Trades Hall.
"There was an incredible sense of euphoria and a lot of young folk who might not know much about Trades rubbing shoulders with the older people," she says.
In 2005, Woodfield produced her first show, Keating: The Musical, at Trades Hall.
Buoyed by the show's success and intrigued by the building's potential, she decided to "take a punt" and organise as many shows as possible in the historic building.
"It really is a living monument to collectivism and what can be achieved if people get their act together" she says.
Woodfield organised the first Comedy@Trades event in 2006, turning over every available space to shows associated with the Comedy Festival.
In keeping with the ethos of Trades Hall, emerging as well as established artists were encouraged to participate.
Woodfield took over licence of "Comrade Paddy's Bar" when former owner Paddy Garrity retired.
She re-named it Bella Union Bar, paying homage to "a beautiful union".
Since then, Trades Hall has been an intrinsic part of the Fringe and Comedy festivals, hosting shows and after-show parties where performers and audiences unwind and network.
"Possibly Trades Hall hasn't been associated for some time with young unionists," Woodfield says.
"(But) we're very much about providing a place where people can come together and share that space in a political, communal and artistic sense."
Bushell agrees. "At first glance it's an odd fit - the union hub of Melbourne becoming this new hub of comedy," he says.
"There's nothing less 'union' in the world that comedy - one person alone, on stage, in a spotlight. Peter Reith was more 'union' than comedy. But then, is there anything more communal than getting a bunch of strangers together in a room and making them laugh at something? So maybe (it's) not that bizarre."
Trades Hall Council secretary Brian Boyd hopes Trades Hall's 150th anniversary in May will galvanise new generations to invest in the place's evolving history.
Trades Hall is proudly union-focused and often radical, but it is also one of the few places in Melbourne where emerging writers, comedians and artists can find venue owners willing to take a punt on untested works. Above all, Trades Hall remains a symbol of collectivism, in all its guises.
"There's 150 years that we've contributed to history and society, but we've also got a lot to contribute to the future," Boyd says.
"I will argue that our best days are in front of us. The union movement is sustainable and is here to stay. For our more established union base our history makes them proud, but our future is just as great."
Trades Hall's 150-year anniversary celebrations will take place on May24. For more information visit www.vthc.org.au.