1870 – 1920 Trades Union Banners

Era: Cultural background: , , Collection: Theme:Federation Folk Art Government Labour Movement Miners Settlement

Mining Federation banner circa 1912- 1915. This banner dates from when coal miners unions in regional NSW merged to form a single state union. Image courtesy Sydney Trades Hall Association Mining Federation banner circa 1912- 1915. This banner dates from when coal miners unions in regional New South Wales merged to form a single state union. Courtesy Sydney Trades Hall Association

Sydney Trades Hall Association, Sydney, Australia.

Object Name
Union Banners.

Object Description
The banners are made from cotton/ canvas and painted with bright colours. They are decorated with various representations of the work process, depictions of workshops, tools and machinery, the entwined triple figure of 8 that represented eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest, Australian flora and fauna, the coat of arms of Australian colonies, local public buildings or landmarks and the celebration of Federation became popular. The banners under went conservation treatments in the early 1990s. The banners are in good condition. Dimensions: approx 5000mm long x 5000mm wide x 5mm thick.

Union Banners at Trades Hall. Circa 1870s- 1920s. Image courtesy Sydney Trades Hall Association
Union Banners at Trades Hall. Circa 1870s- 1920s. Courtesy Sydney Trades Hall Association

The new colony of Australia became an increasingly popular destination for immigrants from European countries in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Since 1850 Australia has supported an organised labour movement. The first trade societies were established just prior to the discovery of gold in 1851. Some unions today can trace their history back to the 1850s. The Amalgamated Metal Workers Union’s forerunner, the British based Amalgamated Society of Engineers established its first Australasian branch in Sydney in 1852 from the organisation that had been formed during the voyage out to Australia. The early unionisation of the printing industry from 1851 led to the establishment of local typographical societies and it is from the merger of these early societies and other manufacturing unions that the existing Automotive Food Metals Engineering Printing & Kindred Industries Union, otherwise known as the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union is formed. Through amalgamations the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union can trace it history back to Melbourne and Sydney’s Eight Hour unions of 1855-56.

The labour movement represents one of Australia’s oldest and tenacious political and cultural influences. Since the 1850s the collective efforts of trades unions have shaped popular opinion and public policy on a range of social and economic issues. Along with a few other western democracies, the Australian labour movement has participated in the debate concerning industrial relations, industrial development, economics, immigration, Federation, the environment and foreign affairs.

The influence of migrant workers on the Australian labour movement has been constant and continuing for 150 years. From the earliest trade protection societies, methods of organisation and industrial practices have reflected links between Australian and British unionism. The influence of migration has both been a source of revitalisation and recurrent tension, not the least between a labour movement aware of its British origins while establishing its own identity.

From 1857 when Melbourne plasters adopted the Southern Cross as its symbol for their banner, there has been the tendency to reject foreign links or experience in favour of a uniquely Australian approach. Carpenters who felt that the relationship between their Australian union and the British Amalgamated Society of Carpenter and Joiners (ASCJ) was too strong established an independent Australian union, the Progressive Society of Carpenters and Joiners in the 1870s. This division in the Australian carpenters union was not healed until the 1920 when the Australian ASCJ broke off links with the parent union in Britain. A similar dispute broke out in the Australian branches of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) in 1890. The powerful British Union had established branches in a number of countries, but a minority of Australian members rejected internationalism in favour of an Australian society. In an attempt to establish a separate identity the newly formed Australian Society of Engineers adopted the motif of a kangaroo silhouetted against a rising sun.

This nationalism reflected the resentment and opposition toward migration in most sections of the Australian labour movement. The government policy to increase colonial population through assisted immigration was seen by some Australian unions as a device to undermine hard won conditions and to create an alternative non unionised workforce. It was an irrational fear that was dispelled once migrants got jobs, joined unions and came to occupy leading roles in the labour movement. Regardless, racism has been a feature of the Australian labour movement well into the 20th century.

Despite these antagonisms the main influence on the Australian labour movement has been the British structure and experience of industrial relations. Many of Australia’s strongest unions started as branches of British parent organisations. British industrial campaigns were studied and copied. British unions maintain regular links and contact with their Australian counter parts. Many early Australian unions were formed in hotels and clubs with the publican acting as the union treasurer- this is based on the British experience. Indeed in the worst anti-Chinese riots in Australian history that occurred at Lambing Flat in 1861. Three thousand miners amassed to move the Chinese off the goldfield. A militant mob took over the meeting of miners assembled at All and Ale pub at Tipperary Gully. The drunken mob headed by a brass band then began the march to Lambing Flat, with two men carrying a banner with the symbol of the Southern Cross and the call to ‘Roll up’ at the front of the procession.

Well before the mass migration after World War II communities of non British migrants played an influential role with the Australian work force and the labour movement. This is seen from the beginning of indentured Chinese migration in the 1840s that was designed to provide shepherds and rural labour in New South Wales and the later general migration of Chinese to the gold fields in the 1850s. From that time migrant workers have been prominent in all Australian mining fields. Welsh and Cornish miners in Bendigo, German, Italians, Croatians and Danes in the Broken Hill mines and Italians in the small Victorian coal mines between the world wars. Migrant communities were visible elsewhere. German farmers and rural labourers in the Riverina, Italian farmers and labourers in Griffith, Croatian manufacturing workers in Orange, Afghan drovers in Broken Hill and Pacific Islanders on the sugar plantations of northern Queensland.

Chinese found work with Chinese employers especially in the furniture industry. Even there they were persecuted. An approach by Chinese furniture workers to the Melbourne Trades Hall in 1902 for assistance to form a union and affiliate with the Trades Hall was outright rejected. If discrimination was encountered by British migrants it was amplified and more severe for migrants of other nationalities. Their inability to speak English was interpreted as either as a reluctance to assimilate or as a sign of inferiority. They were seen as a threat to living standards. Anti migrant riots broke out on the Melbourne waterfront in 1928 and again in Kalgoorlie in 1934 against migrant mine workers.

After World War II, mass migration began to change the balance of Australian unionism. By the 1970s a majority of members of the Vehicle Builders Union and the Clothing Trades Union were from non Northern European backgrounds. In the 1980s this mass membership was translated into the election of these workers to official positions in the unions where it finally officially recognised that migrant workers face particular industrial problems of racism and isolation. Migrants rarely featured in early banners or processions but became part of this revived artistic culture when it resurfaced in the 1970s and 1980s.

Banner making is a long standing tradition in the Australian and British labour movement. From the time of the first eight hour processions banners provided a colourful and artistic interest. Australian banners were decorated with traditional themes of British union banners. These included the representation of the work process, depiction of workshops, tools and machinery. From as early as the 1850s these documentary images of work and the workplace included an Australian symbolism mainly the entwined triple figure of 8 that represented eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest, together with Australian flora and the coat of arms of Australian colonies. From the 1900s images of local public buildings or landmarks and the celebration of Federation became popular. In Australian the use of banners was closely linked to the celebration of the Eight Hour Movement rather that everyday union life. While this ensured the tradition of banner making would flourish with the Eight Hours movement, it also ensured that the tradition would decline after the 1930s economic depression hit union membership and the passing of the 8 hour movement.

In their heyday between 1870 and 1920 the possession of a banner symbolised both performance and legitimacy to the union membership. Banners were judged and prizes awarded. A big event was when a newly establish union or a long standing union commissioned a new banner and parade it for the first time.

Much planning and consideration went into the design, choice of artist and the use of appropriate images, slogans and symbols as with the size and colour. These decisions involved a level of tension as the member’s acceptance and the public appreciation were both important. In some cases bonds were sold to members to raise the funds required to commission a new banner, in some cases sympathetic employers contributed to the cause. Every banner was recognised by its union as a public statement of their industrial presence, achievements and commitment to continuing social progress. The banners represented a comprehensive statement of each union’s identity, so a banner had to precise, appropriate and correct.

At events such as Eight Hour marches union members were up before dawn preparing. Banners were retrieved from Trades Hall banner rooms and mounted on decorated drays or trucks. Floats had to be both to assembly points and preceding the march thousands of members gathered behind their union’s banner. Most unionists wore a ribbon identifying their union or society that, like a banner, represented a commitment to their union and the cause. In marches just before World War One between 10,000 & 15,000 unionists paraded with more than a hundred banners. Their effect on the crowds would have been profound as a form of a tribal rally that proclaimed ‘we are British, white and working class’ or ‘Australia for the white man’ as the popular catch cry of the time articulated the feeling.

Eight Hour Procession, Sydney, 1909. Courtesy State Library New South Wales
Eight Hour Procession, Sydney, 1909. Courtesy State Library New South Wales

Many banners were never carried after the Great Depression. Some were worn out and were discarded- few have survived. They provide an ongoing tangible link to the Eight Hour movement of the early 20th century and the renewed practice of banner making in the 1970s and 1980s. In order to please a television generation these new banners adapted mural and poster art styles thus ensuring the survival of one of Australia’s oldest artistic traditions.

'Technical skills are out of this world! Girls Apprenticeship and Technical Scheme', 1985.
Technical skills are out of this world! Girls Apprenticeship and Technical Scheme, 1985. Artist: Kath Walters, Courtesy State Library of Victoria

A Banner to celebrate 100 years of the Trades Hall in Broken Hill. Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation
A Banner to celebrate 100 years of the Trades Hall in Broken Hill. Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation

The banners have historic significance as evidence of the themes of economic and industrial relations ideologies that fostered Australia’s links to Britain, British trade unionism and the development of racially discriminative colonial policies culminating in one of the first acts of the newly Federated Commonwealth of Australia, the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act.

The banners have aesthetic significance in the design, language and the appropriation of the symbols such as the Southern Cross emblem as a symbol of racially exclusive working class rights and trade union solidarity in nineteenth century Australia. This symbolism and language has persisted into contemporary labour movement culture. The Southern Cross emblem, like the Australian flag, is also often used in times of perceived crisis by extreme right wing racist political groups.

The banners provide a research tool for historians to explore the culture and politics of established locals and migrants in the workforce and community, especially those of the Chinese. Objects such as the banners have already provided invaluable evidence exploring the experiences and world of the working class communities in 19th century regional New South Wales. The banners provide evidence of the local labour movement suspicions of the migrants especially the Chinese. The myths created about the inferiority of the Chinese and superiority of Anglo working class are symbolised by the often use Southern Cross emblem. These myths later provided the basis for the racist logic of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Acts.

The banners are well provenanced. They were made by various unions affiliated to New South Wales Trades Hall and have been stored in the banner store room there since the 1880s.

The banners are rare because the practice of banner processions died out in the 1930s and many banners had worn out and had been thrown out. Other early banners and flags include the Southern Cross flag of the Eureka Rebellion at Ballarat Victoria in 1854.

The banners represents the experience of the 19th century labour movement, the importation of British union’s practices and culture to Australia and the attitudes of the labour movement to migrants and people of non Anglo backgrounds. The attitude to migrants, especially the Chinese provided the seeds for the ideology for the 1901 Immigration Restriction Acts. The banners represent the ever present undercurrent of racism in Australian history.

The condition of the collection is good given the rarity and fragile nature of the fabric. Conservation treatments were performed in the early 1990s. It is significant that such an object remain in good condition, intact and in the region it has an historical association with.

The banner is a powerful interpretive tool in communicating the experience and the history of the Australian labour movement and their relationships with and attitudes to migrants.


Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Their Ghosts may be heard: Australia to 1900, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.

Reeves, A 1988, Another Day, Another Dollar: Working Lives in Australian History, Murdoch, Melbourne.

Wilton, J 2004, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional NSW, 1850 – 1950, New England Regional Museum & Powerhouse Museum Publishing.


Migration Heritage Centre logo
The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

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Regional Services at the Powerhouse Museum is supported by Movable Heritage, NSW funding from the NSW Ministry for the Arts.