May Day 1973 was the launch date of the Banner Bright, John Gorman’s rediscovery and celebration of British trade union banners. Thousands of these were made in the 19th and 20th centuries. Workers proudly unfurled their banners in celebration and in protest and triumph in their battles with employers. So why banners? Where did this come from and what was there to celebrate?

We celebrate May Day as one when industrial workers in many countries assembled beneath many union banners and slogans to fight for the eight-hour working day. May Day had for centuries before that been a day of defiance, revelry and partying. Robin Hood, the maypole The Midnight Notes Collective claims “there is a Green side and there is a Red side, Green is creation of desire; Red is class struggle. May Day is both”

Gwyn Williams introduced Gorman’s book with the tale of an insurrection (the red side) by the workers of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales in 1831. These workers marched to recapture petty properties that had been confiscated by debtor’s courts under demands from shopkeepers. They marched under a banner that called for “Death to kings and tyrants! The reign of Justice for ever!”

To have marched in the Merthyr Riots marked a man for years Williams claims. It was remembered in court and in obituaries. The next day they confronted soldiers under a black or red banner and after much argument the marchers attacked the soldiers who fired and killed many people. The rioters headed for the hills to raid farms and powder shops for weapons. On Abedare Mountain, the rebels ritually sacrificed a calf, washed a flag in its blood and impaled a loaf of bread on a staff.  The red flag was on the march.

Nine years later a more formal Chartist protest march but an equally strong demand for justice with banners once again the key. This saw the workers greeting chartists Peter Douall and John Collins who were released from gaol. The released men saw thousands in the green scarves of Chartism with the lead banner having Douall’s portrait and THE TYRANTS FOE writ large upon it.

The march saw many bright and beautiful banners of British labour with mottoes that last forever – “Unity, Benevolence; The Rights of Man”; “Liberty and Equality” “Labour, the Source of All Wealth”.

The Welshmen were beaten back in 1831 and the Chartists saw their hopes shattered and the movement dissipated. Trade unionism began to develop from time however.and it spread rapidly to the colonies. The founders of many early craft unions in Australia, and of the eight-hour movement that was so successful in Victoria were veterans of the chartist protests, who sought more fertile ground for their ideas in Australia.

But the origins of the banners and motifs are older than the craft unions that produced many of the elaborate banners in those early days, and workers movements provided much of the custom for Tutill the major bannermaker in the UK for over 100 years. 


The banners and motifs stemmed from the forerunners of the early craft societies. The friendly societies and Masonic lodges, with their regalia, passwords and secret signs provided sickness benefits, unemployment benefits and superannuation for their members. Trade unions carried on this role for many in the UK until after WWII.

 Workers shaking

The 1889 Dockers Tanner strike in London saw protest marches on many occasions and the final triumph of the workers saw an enormous development of the new unionism and an international solidarity acknowledged on many banners at many branches of that union. The British and Australian worker remained the union centrepiece until the formation of the Transport and General workers Union in 1920

The next year saw the first May in London with 400 banners unfurled. 

Eleanor Marx and Fred Engels were on the podium (see above). Engels wrote  " On May 4, 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army. . . . The grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle. . . . What would I give if Marx had lived to see this awakening." (Article in Vienna Arbeiterzeitung, May 23, 1890.)

The new gun is the eight hour gun, fired here by the workers of Woolwich Arsenal towards the Houses of Parliament.

The other banner illustrated has the “coat or arms” of a union and is one of the kind that is justly celebrated and conserved today in such institutions as the Peoples History Museum in Manchester, the Museum of Victoria, Kalgoorlie and in Sydney Trades Hall. The symbols of unions and of nations are inscribed on this and many surviving banners .

The oldest trade union banner in the Sydney Trades Hall collection (we think) dates from the time of that London May Day march. The Pressers Eight Hour Society banner was commission by a union that had formed in 1885 when they were “100 strong”.


The symbol of the bundle of sticks used show the strong links between the early unions across the British Empire and between the unions and the earlier friendly societies. The bundle refers directly to Aesops Fable of the small child who can break a single stick but bound together a strong man cannot break them.

Other symbols that are used in many union emblems include the All Seeing Eye. According to Leeson (United We Stand) The eye (Of God) dates to the Rosicrucians and alchemists of the middle ages, and was well known to those predecessors to the unions, the guilds. It was adopted by freemasons (and then stonemasons) societies. Annie Ravenhill-Johnson in her guide to trade union emblems (The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem, 1850-1925. Anthem Press, 2013) shows how many emblems have carried on in various forms since Alciati published a guide to them in 1522. Yes 1522. Leeson in Travelling Brothers dates many craft societies and guilds back for 800 years with symbols of solidarity carrying through to today

The members of the societies had to keep the fact of membership secret in earlier times. The Unlawful Societies Act (1799) and the Unlawful Oaths Act (1797) together with the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 were attempts to suppress political and industrial reform, a time of revolutionary upheaval in France and of developing dark satanic mills in the UK.  Employer combinations were supposedly covered by these laws but of course never faced prosecution under them. The Luddites from around 1814 showed that state violence was needed to suppress workers determined to protect their livelihood from those who introduced machinery with no consideration for the workers displaced or forced to work like machines to survive.

The repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 make trade unions legal in a limited form, and the oldest banners in existence in the UK date from precisely this time. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported in the 1830s because the Unlawful Oaths Act remained in force.

 The banners the size of sails were a way of broadcasting the messages of solidarity through words and images, in the days before radio, television and the internet. Many banners and certificates show the importance of education that many in the working classes had and wanted others to have. The symbols and words were codes, dating sometimes to ancient Greek scholarship.  The depictions of machines on the banners later in the 19th century showed a more confident labour movement. The machines are under the control of the united working classes, not the bosses.

More straight forwardly, many of the banners and emblems refer directly to sickness benefits, unemployment benefits and superannuation. All provided by the society or union long before union pressure brought state based support.

So why should we care about old banners now and why should we maintain and extend the tradition? If the union was providing these benefits, as well as fighting for decent wages and conditions and had survived repression by the state and employers, why wouldn’t you celebrate your work and your union through identifying strongly with the union banner, carried proudly through public space in defiance and celebration.

Ian Millis and Ian Burn put it this way in the 1980s:
“ …The history of labour has markedly influenced the character of culture overall in Australia …

This historical consciousness is crucial; it is the understanding of labour's achievements and defeats. While labour movement pressure has forced the enactment of much enlightened social and industrial legislation, in many ways the struggles to advance workers' rights and conditions are the same and merely being fought on different ground… trade unions play a vital role as a creative force within the society.


 Art and Working Life: Cultural activities in the Australian trade union movement


Women and Unions and T Shirts

Celebrating women and work from many unions around the world this IWD

What to do with your old union T shirts

Trades Hall had been wondering about this a couple of years ago as we had accumulated many trade union and campaign t shirts over the years as part of our collection development on trade union history. A t shirt made for a campaign has been very common over the past 30 years.  We sorted them into issues and unions a realised we had a great number of women and unions, equal pay, parental leave women and skilled work ones so though “there must be a good way to present all these.

Step forward trade union banner maker extraordinaire <a href=””>Birgitte Hansen</a>. We asked her to maybe make a quilt or join them together somehow”.

Being vastly more creative and thoughtful than us she came up with this for International Women’s Day 2013

women and unions banner

The T shirts kept coming so by International Women’s Day 2014 the banner had grown:

women and unions banner expanded

See more union banners here



To the Daring Belongs the Future

To the Daring Belongs the Future – Emma Goldman

new forms cover

A new book from PM Press (Oakland, CL) 2014 New Forms of Worker Organization: the syndicalist and autonomist restoration of class struggle unionism (edited by Immanuel Ness) gives some great examples of rank and file , bottom up actions around the world which  challenge the mainstream trade union leadership approach (particularly in the rapidly deindustrialising “western world” that seeks deals with supposedly “friendly political parties in exchange for trade union acquiescence to the neo-liberal agenda.


The contributors provide detailed discussion on movements and action in Italy, China, Russia, India, South Africa, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, USA and the United Kingdom. A pretty good attempt at a world-wide approach that highlights the importance of local conditions and internationalism.


The “new forms” of work organisation are actually based ideas and actions associated with the Industrial Workers of the World. Actions that perhaps kicked off around 1895 in Europe and expanded around the world as workers moved and organised. Emma Goldman defined “syndicalism” as a revolutionary philosophy of labour conceived and born in the struggle and experience of workers.”   The forms of action are determined by the workers themselves not by union officials outside the workplace. Independence from any political party is central to the approach to organising.

 Emma Goldman

To follow a boring beginning to end path through the collection, this short piece  introduces to the Italian autonomista groups, known as Operaismo. They had their origins in the 1960s when the worldwide upheavals were challenging political parties of the left and right. In Italy the Christian Democrats had dominated since the end of World War II, but the national trade union bodies such as the CGIL  were pushed into activism by a groundswell. The Christian Democrats sought to include the socialists in government as a way of holding down dissent. The communist party, a strong alternative force, was a part of the reformist way that seems to have been the “euro-communist” way.

The left of the PCI was not convinced and they, along with others were the basis of operaismo, now COBAs (Confederarazione dei Comitati di Base). These workerist movements were autonomous unaffiliated with any of the political parties. The early version of the movements were blasted by the state attacks that saw, for example the red brigades, lotta continua repressed.  Anarchist formations were in particular the object of state repression, as documented savagely by Dario Fo and Franca Rame (see the dramas Can’t Pay, We Won’t Pay; and Accidental Death of an Anarchist). A new movement, the COBAS developed from the late 1980s. The COBAs have been to the forefront of the protest against the austerity path, adopting the Brecht line It is more criminal to found a bank than to rob it.” Sectoral COBAs have been developed in defence of public education, public transport. The main union movement looks to compromise, COBAs do not.

COBAs structures aim to maintain maximum democratic practice, not the practice of parliamentary democracy, Paid directors are not permitted to vote. Funding is always an issue but they seek contributions from members of 0.5% of monthly salaries. They have been able to establish an international relief body Azimut. They have monthly meetings and no overarching bosses. Committees “rule”, always via mass meetings. Decisions require 75%agreement. If agreement is not reached it will be discussed again.  The author this chapter Steven Manicastri asks if the model be sustainable? We don’t know, but it remains a fierce rejection of the bureaucratic unionism we see elsewhere.


History of Trades Hall

History of Trades HallThe Sydney Trades Hall building is a physical reminder of the history and tradition of the Trade Union movement in New South Wales, as well as a chronicler of the social and socio-economic history of the city. Construction began in 1888, just 100 years after the arrival of the first European settlers, with the laying of the foundation stone by Lord Carrington. However, another 28 years were to pass before the building was completed and stage five of the construction process officially signed off. 

The building, which today is often referred to as the birthplace of the Trade Union Movement in New South Wales, still evokes strong and passionate feelings from those who once worked within its walls. “The Hall” was all things to all people – from being a meeting place for various associations and unions early in its life, to its subsequent role as provider of office space for unions, artists and professionals in the 1990s, and now, once again, the corporate headquarters for Unions NSW.

       History of Trades Hall Part 1        History of Trades Hall Part 2       History of Trades Hall Part 3

Union Badge Collection on ABC Collector Program

Watch the video as Bill Pirie discusses  his trade union badge collectionFor generartions, Bill Pirie’s family has been involved with trade unions.  Born in Dundee, Scotland, not only were his parents union members but his grandparents too. Here, Bill discusses his badge collection featured on the ABC TV's Collectors program.  He explained a time when in Great Britain unions came to an agreement with shops that they wouldn't sell goods unless they carried a stamp guaranteeing their union origin. Manufacturers then wouldn't be able to sell goods to outlets unless they carried the stamp.  Badges were produced to mark specific stoppages.  Watch the video.

Trades Hall

  • Trades Hall
  • Home for the first labour movement broadcasting station in the world
  • Sydney Eight Hour procession 1871
  • Trades Hall meeting room

Trades Hall was built by and for trade unions, to have a meeting place for unionists and to develop literacy and education for the workers of NSW. It is a trades hall and literary institute, boasting many union offices, meeting rooms and a wonderful library that has always had books and newspapers from around the world.  The website is in the spirit of these initial purposes where you can find fascinating tales of unions, social movement and individuals who have contributed to the development of social justice, workers’ rights and social democracy around the world, not just in NSW.