Working Class Culture

Mike Davis in Old Gods New Enigmas writes brilliantly about recovering and rethinking Marx for today. The culture and traditions he refers to are largely European and North American but the Sydney Trades Hall in its development and use has embodied many of those traditions.

davis old gods.jpg

Sydney Trades Hall was set up as a Trades Hall and Literary Institute. The fight for an eight-hour working day in Australia was strongly argued by stonemasons with a demand for less work time so there was more time to read. Letters to the Editor of the Sydney Herald in 1855 pointed out that many stonemasons were already enrolled in Mechanics Institutes.

The Trades Hall then was a hub of cultural and recreational activities for workers. Looking through the records of the caretaker, and the minutes of the Trades Hall management meetings, we see a caretaker who had a huge job preparing and opening rooms for socials, dances, lectures and union meetings.

Mike Davis discusses such traditions in Old Gods New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory. Davis seeks to understand how class capacities and consciousness arose amongst all the social conflict people faced. Housing and community are crucial to the fighting for rights in the factory and other workplaces. Social development and culture amongst working people helped build and maintain that consciousness and solidarity through fierce battles with employers, landlords and the state.

He does not use Australian examples but workers hall and gymnasia, public housing, sporting clubs and worker theatre are central to this development. Sydney Trades Hall was a centre for much of this struggle and celebration and recreation. We have trophies and photos from various sports carnivals.

The “Ladies Lounge” was the name given to the women’s toilet and changeroom established on level one. The room was fought for and won with great organising and negotiating tactics by the Trades Hall Girl Employees Committee. The Committee comprised the secretarial staff of the many unions who rented office space in Trades Hall. Staunch unionists all. Union events and functions were the basis of social and recreational life so instead of going home to get ready for the parties or dances or lectures at the Hall, the women demanded and got a nicely appointed changeroom to make it easier to attend such events.

Women have been the backbone of rent strikes, demands for food and health and safety, despite many male dominated worker organisations leaving them out, ignoring their presence as workers, or blaming women for attacks on wages. The first stage of the Russian Revolution in our calendar, was in February 1917 and was lead by women. In Berlin the same year women mobilized thousands in a Bread Strike in the mists of war. Barcelona saw similar action as did Madrid. Women’s ways of organising in neighbourhoods was central to this and a key pointer for unions today in our financialised society as we are pushed into debt to save capitalism and we are financialised individually, Collective action at the level of finance could be a way unions could reinvent themselves as “permanent work” on the male breadwinner model fades (see Bryan and Rafferty 2018)

The union label on clothes became a prominent mode of fighting and reinforcing consumer solidarity in the early 20th century and Lincoln Cushing from the Centre for the Study of Political Graphics has urged their use.

The AFL created its own union label department in 1909 and it continues today.

In Australia there was a legal battle in the early 20th century about “workers marks” and trademarks with legislation being introduced and eventually passed in 1905 , only to be struck down by the High Court two years later as reported in The Argus in June 1906 as a “peculiar situation” (see also Sam Ricketson: The Union Label Case: an early Australian IP Story


Meetings and Halls

The other crucial public place for the working class has been hotels. As Davis says, temperance was supported by such leading figures as Kier Hardie and James Connolly. The stonemasons in Sydney made a strong point that the eight-hour days was not to be abused by these gentlemen in drinking but in education. Sydney saw a strong temperance movement at least up to World War One, with no election in NSW unaffected by campaigning by the temperance movement. Trades Hall had a strict no purchasing of alcohol on the premises. There were plenty of watering holes close by, and unions used the simple but ingenious expedient of selling tickets that said Beer rather than beer itself. The ticket could then be exchanged for the item listed on ticket.

The social clubs and halls were seriously useful for working class culture. They were social centres and information exchanges just as the coffee houses were in London as mercantilism developed in the 1600s. Davis quotes Pamela Swett who points out the pub had a “main advantage for political mobilization,”. It was “a semiprivate space. Though open to the public regular patrons knew each other well and outsiders were easy to identify.” Pubs around Sussex St and the Haymarket in Sydney were identified with various unions. The Trades Hall Assn was established in the “Swan with Two Necks”, gone now but not far from Sydney Town Hall. That pub was home to as many as 30 union meetings each week until the Trades Hall was completed. Not far away the Criterion Temperance Hotel was keeping its eye on proceedings (or as one wag put it, keeping the Swan’s  neck twisted in its direction) with union more inclined to keep the demon drink at bay. James McGowen, first ALP Premier in in NSW was the ringmaster there apparently.

swan with two necks 1885

Trades Hall had a barber shop which served as a place of information exchange. Papers were there and discussion amongst members waiting for a trim and shave was par for the course.

Europeans called for “labour temples” as early as 1840, when Flora Tristan proposed the construction of Workers’ Palaces “where children of the working class will be instructed, intellectually and professionally, and where workingmen and women who have been injured at their jobs, and those who are infirm or aged, will be cared for.” This was at the time when Mechanics’ Institutes were most growing, and this applied to Australia as we see from the stonemasons emphasising their members enrolment in the 1850s. Australia created its own temples from 1868. Melbourne, Sydney, Ballarat, Bendigo, Broken Hill boast grand halls. Margaret Kohn pointed out (quoted by Davis) that they were an “important intervention in the symbolic landscape. It was part of the polemical challenge to authority and dominance of the church, the state and private capital.”

Broken Hill Trades Hall (foundation stone laid by Ben Tillet in 1903) was purposely built to be larger than the city hall.

All these halls around the world had libraries, and many later had cinema and gyms. They operated labour exchanges to ensure fair work and fair pay.

room 29 library

The House of the People near Sienna, Italy was begun by socialists. It was completed in 1917 (same year Sydney Trades Hall auditorium was completed) and contained a library, consumer cooperative, meetings rooms for youth and a women’s group. “The Red flag that waves in one of the towers of our House of the People, pride of this proletariat, nightmare of our adversaries, is our model and stimulus to work, propaganda and organisation.”

The Hiring Hall

Sydney Trades Hall had a labour exchange for a number of years. The WWF had a huge success in taking over the hiring practices on the wharves as part of their assault on the degrading hungry mile pick up system.

Again the parallels in Europe and North America that Davis highlights are striking. “Solidarity was organized through the urban bourses du trevail. These were union managed, municipally funded labour exchanges. They ere based around the municipal areas so very locally aware. The beginnings were in 1886when a leftish majority controlled Paris council. The process helped reduce dog eat dog competition amongst workers, and aimed to prevent strike breakers coming in by providing alternative ways to get  paid work. These bourses seemed to be more dynamic and outgrew the more formal union movement represented by the CGT. The state reaction came when these great organising venues developed a strong anti-military and anti-state philosophy. The French govt acted to reduce municipal funding so as to cut down these worker controlled organisations.


Working class culture has been derided as we are persuaded to “educate” our selves to appreciate high culture. Thus opera ahead of music hall for example. The Newcastle Cultural Action Committee took on this issue from the 1970s. Here is Laurie Quillen explaining their approach in an interview with Mike Donaldson:

“The thrust of the Workers’ Cultural Action Committee is to take Art out of the closet and into  the  street,  to  make  it  accessible  to working people. Right.   We’ve tried to stay clear  of contemporary  ruling  class cultural activities and present workers with alternative, progressive cultural  material,  which  at  the same  time  is  not  strictly  didactic  but  which draws on working class  life.  Ruling class ideology has dominated cultural life for a long, long time. It has swept aside and ignored almost completely working class cultural traditions,  to  such an extent that large numbers of workers themselves are out of touch with their own  traditions.  What we’re trying to do is bridge that gap.”


Why an Eight Day or the fight for time meant so much

Creating leisure hours was hugely important. In Australia from the 1850s Eight Hours Works, Eight Rest , Hours Play was a cornerstone of union development. This was initially the self-titled aristocrats of labour – skilled male artisan generally. But the symbolism was important to all, as embodied in the many trade union banners that we have in Sydney Trades Halls collection dating from the 1880s, where the intertwined 888 was used by all.

Workers cooperative stores, sports clubs and drama societies came from this. In the UK cycling was a key activity, with the Clarion Club, initially based in Manchester perhaps the best know example. Emil Voigt was a keen cyclist, wrestler, runner and socialist who was based there. He came to Australia and was immediately involved in the politics around the Labor Council and Trades Hall and was the one who made union officialdom aware of the importance of radio as a key modern communication and recreation tool. Radio 2KY, owned by the Labour Council of NSW at Voigt’s initiative) held the worlds first outside sports broadcasts.

Ramblers in the UK with socialist at the helm were key to keeping public walking tracks open despite the opposition of landlords. In Germany this began to be referred to as “festival culture”. Looking at 8 hour parades in Australia, and union picnic days we see that this culture was a huge part of the success. The eight hour parades had sports carnivals, marching contests and many other activities. This was in the cities and in regional centres where many aspects of what we see in local agricultural shows were a firm part of the 8 hour and picnic days. As May day was originally conceived as a day for rejected and making fun of the ruling class who claimed to control you, the eight hour traditions conceiving “production, social relations and political institutions that rejected existing structures, practices and values” (Davis quoting Vernon Lidtke The Alternative Culture; Socialist Labour in Imperial Germany, OUP,1985))

This working class culture was questioned and left wing practices seem to make it hard to continue some of them. In Jacobin recently they comment on the plight of activists such as  Beth Redmond:

“her social life of going to watch football or music with her non-political friends was increasingly replaced with newspaper sales and unimaginative topical meetings. Attempts at blending new political friends with her old ones was met with hostility. Being a revolutionary, it seemed, meant gathering contacts — not enjoying the hobbies and cultural pursuits most people pursue.”

E P Thompson had in the early 1960s faced this same antagonism from the “New Left” which seemingly disparaged working class pursuits

As Emma Goldman probably didn’t say in said in 1931 “If I can’t dance it’s not my revolution”.

What she did say is along those lines:

“I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.” [Living My Life (New York: Knopf, 1934), p. 56]

Not so very different from Beth Redmond.

Let’s keep rallying and talking and protesting but also dancing and playing and watching and listening and enjoying our leisure for a future we want. Planting trees,  grasses, flowers, fruit and veges, walking, relaxing. Less CO2 less stress better planet anyone?


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