Work-life balance seems like such a 21st century concept that it is surprising to find it lying at the heart of the most significant labour campaign of the 19th century – the struggle for an 8-hour working day. This Australia-wide fight to change working hours from Dickensian to somewhat enlightened was so important and its eventual win so celebrated that we still commemorate it every year as a public holiday on the first Monday in October.
In essence the movement centred on the demand that the working day should be eight hours, this allowed for eight hours recreation and eight hours rest and made a neat divide of a 24-hour day. It was often illustrated with the symbol ‘8-8-8’.
In the 1850s Australian skilled workers generally worked a 58-hour week made up of 10 hours Monday to Friday and eight hours on Saturday. Labor historian Rowan Cahill explained “The idea that working people should work less hours, enjoy and improve their lives, and have some control over their working conditions, were radical propositions, as was the idea the working day should be based on eight-hours of work.”
While stonemasons had early victories in the 8-8-8 campaign and were able to claw back their working day, for everyone else long onerous hours of work persisted. A 12-14 hour day was not uncommon.
In 1883 a small group of Newcastle men met at the Black Diamond Hotel in Hunter Street West to discuss organising a union parade as a public show of strength for the 8-hour day campaign. Inspired by their comrades in Sydney and Melbourne, whose colourful protests had garnered widespread newspaper coverage, they held the first Newcastle 8-hour day rally in October that year.
It was deemed such a success, with thousands attending and the Newcastle Herald declaring it to be ‘a red letter day in the annals of Newcastle’, that the rally became an annual display of union solidarity. An 8-Hour Day Demonstration Committee (HDDC) was formed with the group soon realising the need for a Trades Hall building to function as a home base for labour organisations. From 1888 onwards HDDC made frequent applications to the State Government appealing for a grant of land on which to build a union headquarters. Their requests were continually turned down.
Undaunted they sent a deputation to the NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes, a known sympathiser to their cause. The unionists were buoyed by their positive meeting with Parkes, but behind the scenes political machinations were afoot. When a motion of no confidence in the Premier was suddenly passed in late 1891 he immediately resigned, unfortunately before the Trades Hall land had been formally granted. Lobbying began again, now with an unsympathetic new Premier, Sir George Dibbs, but this time the state’s political machinations worked in their favour.
Dibbs was a conservative, described at the time as ‘an enemy of labour’, but he was relying on the Labor Party’s support in parliament. Deals were done and in 1892 a bill was passed granting land for a Trades Hall in Hunter Street, but it came with a sting in its tail. The land was to be held by five trustees and if the unionists did not spend £500 within three years improving the site (that is, by constructing a building) the land was to be forfeited and given to the Chief Commissioner of Railways. Furious fundraising started and eventually enough money was secured to start construction. They just made it. Newcastle’s first Trades Hall officially opened on 22 June 1895, barely inside the three year deadline.
This lovely Victorian building still stands in Hunter Street, it is now part of Hunter TAFE. Its ornate façade is highly carved grey stone and it has brickwork which ranges in colour from red to buff to yellowish. The building is tuck pointed and embellished with elaborate stonework around the roof edges and the window sills. Originally its interior walls were decorated with stencil patterns and boasted elaborate joinery, these are now gone but its name and construction date are still clearly visible at the top of the building.
The Trades Hall had three meeting rooms, two on the ground floor and one upstairs making it, for its era, a very spacious public building. It would seem that the union movement had found a forever home, but it was not to be. Only six years after it opened the new Trades Hall was deemed to be too small and soon the unionists were on the move in search of a more spacious centre
The Hunter Street TAFE, home of the Newcastle Art School, now adjoins the old Trades Hall which has become a campus administration building. I like to think that this gracious edifice, a monument to 19th century unionism and the advancement of Newcastle’s 8-hour campaign sits quietly, but proudly, sure of its place in our city’s labour history.
Newcastle’s first Trade Union building is at 590-608 Hunter Street, Newcastle West.
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