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Workers and Trade Unions

Both the political and industrial wings of the labour movement in Australia are represented on the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register. The Manifesto of the Queensland Labour Party represents the beginnings of the political party which became the Australian Labor Party, while The Minute Books of Pre-Federation Australian Trade Unions are a powerful record of grass-roots activities by members of trade unions in workplaces throughout the country. The link between the two is made by those early trade union members and officials who became members of State and Federal parliaments representing the Australian Labor Party. These include Prime Ministers John Christian Watson, Andrew Fisher, Joseph Cook and William Morris Hughes and Premiers Anderson Dawson (Queensland), James McGowen (New South Wales) and Thomas Price (South Australia).

The 1904 Federal government led by Prime Minister Watson is recognised as the first national labour government in the world. It had its origins in labour parties formed in the Australian colonies before Federation. The first of these was the Queensland Labour Party, which formed in response to the setbacks suffered by the labour movement in the maritime and shearing strikes of 1891.

The Manifesto of the Queensland Labour Party was issued on 9 September 1892 following a meeting between four Labour politicians and six representatives of Workers’ Political Associations in August 1892. It was written by prominent trade unionist and Queensland Labour Party member Charles Seymour (1853-1924) and signed by Thomas Glassey, President of the new party and the first person to be popularly elected on a labour platform in Queensland. According to party tradition, it was read out under the famous ‘Tree of Knowledge’ ghost gum in Barcaldine, Queensland. In 1899 the Queensland Labour government led by Anderson Dawson became, briefly, the first labour government in the world.

The manifesto, a single document, was nominated to the register by its custodian, the State Library of Queensland. The Minute Books of Pre-Federation Australian Trade Unions were, by contrast, nominated by the eleven custodial institutions which hold the over 300 volumes that fall within the scope of this nomination. The institutions include the Noel Butlin Archives Centre and the University of Melbourne Archives (both specialist ‘collecting archives’ of labour history), four state libraries, four other university archives and the Outback Archives at the Broken Hill City Library.

The nomination was coordinated by the Noel Butlin Archives Centre at the Australian National University which holds over 200 of the minute books. Trade union records are not protected by archival legislation in Australia and may end up in a variety of institutions. Collecting archives such as the Noel Butlin Archives Centre and the University of Melbourne Archives work closely with current trade unions to ensure that significant records such as minute books are preserved. Often trade union records are donated to institutions by former union officials or their families.

The nomination was framed to recognise the importance of recording the democratic, collective decision-making of Australian workers in minute books. While trade unions also produce many other records such as membership and financial records, it is in the minutes of meetings of members or their elected representatives that those decisions are recorded. Unlike the record of parliaments which in the nineteenth century recorded the deliberations of more privileged citizens, they are a record of democracy for workers, both men and women.

The trades and occupations covered by early trade unions range from the still familiar (miners, engineers, engine drivers, teachers, nurses, journalists, musicians, carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and gasfitters, electricians, painters, plasterers, shop assistants, cleaners, seamen, shearers and labourers), to workers in manufacturing industries no longer having individual trade union representation (glass bottle makers, bakers, pastrycooks, biscuitmakers, confectioners, brewery employees, bootmakers, tanners, curriers, furniture makers, tinsmiths, ironfounders, sheet iron workers, agricultural implement makers, boilermakers, iron shipbuilders, shipwrights, stovemakers, porcelain enamellers, moulders, tobacco workers, typographers, linotype operators, lithographers, bookbinders and paper rulers). Then there are occupations which are almost non-existent today: coopers, stonemasons, lumpers, felt hatters, sailmakers, tailors and tailoresses, pressers, engine firemen, and paperhangers.

The minute books cover the period from the early formation of unions in Australia as offshoots of British craft unions up to Federation. This period includes significant milestones in the labour movement such as the 8-hour day campaign from 1856, the beginnings of our social welfare system, the formation of distinctly Australian unions representing shearers and waterside workers, the maritime and shearing strikes of the 1890s, and the impetus for political representation for workers through the formation of the Australian Labor Party. The federation of the Australian colonies brought not only changes to the system of arbitration, but also the increasing consolidation of local workplace, town and state-based unions into federal trade unions.

The Australian Trade Union Archives website ( made it possible to locate many collections of trade union records in Australia, but it was only after contacting individual institutions that the number of minute books which would fall within the nomination became clear. It remains a possibility that other records will come to light in institutional or private hands that should be added to the inscription in the future. The earliest trade union in Australia appears to have been the Australian Society of Compositors, whose rules were printed in 1839, but of which no archival records can now be located.

Minute Book of the Herald Office Chapel

Minute Book of the Herald Office Chapel, 1849.

Image courtesy of Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University

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