Could workers’ meeting rooms soon become World Heritage sites?
In April 1856, a group of stonemasons in Melbourne, Australia quit their jobs in protest at their employers’ refusal to accept their demand for an eight-hour working day. In the weeks that followed, the “eight hour movement” grew stronger and the bosses ended up agreeing to negotiate with the workers. The agreement reached granted the stonemasons the right to work eight hours a day instead of the usual ten hours for the same salary.
Following this victory, the stonemasons committee of Melbourne decided to build a “people’s palace”, which was to serve as a forum for future convocations. Funded and built by the workers themselves, a first temporary stamp structure was built in 1859, while work on the first permanent building was completed in 1874. This building, the Victorian Trades Hall, is one of oldest continuously operating union buildings in the world and now houses various unions and a workers’ museum.
Over the following decades, similar buildings built by workers and/or for workers sprang up all over the world. Open-air public meetings were not tolerated when miners in the western state of Saarland fought for fairer living and working conditions in 1890s Germany. In 1891, every mine worker in the Sarre donated bricks and two German marks to build a trade union house in Friedrichsthal, which is today the oldest trade union building in Germany. The Hall of Trade Unions in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, was built between 1958 and 1960, and Ghana’s first president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, donated it to the working people of Ghana in appreciation for their contribution to the struggle for independence.
These are just two examples, but there are many more. The Workers’ Museum in Denmark is currently spearheading efforts to identify other workers’ assembly halls and their origin stories around the world. The aim of this initiative is to highlight the regional characteristics of workers’ movements around the world and to have the workers’ halls recognized by UNESCO as world heritage sites.
Freedom, equality and solidarity
Located in the original Workers’ Assembly building built by the labor movement in 1879, the Workers’ Museum in central Copenhagen, Denmark features exhibits covering 150 years of industrial history, the lives of the children of the working class around 1930 and the lives of the Danes. working-class families in the 1950s. This was the decade when, in the words of the museum, workers were “saying goodbye to deprivation” through higher wages, and the hardships of the post-World War II era gave way to growing consumerism.
In 2008, a team from the Workers Museum began researching workers’ meeting rooms. They carried out a large-scale comparative study of 58 meeting rooms in 23 countries in Western Europe, Australia and North America, which showed how the labor movement developed in distinct ways in various parts of the world. Although various members of staff worked on the study as a side project over the following years, the project was given a new lease of life in 2021. That year, the museum issued an appeal inviting members of the public to submit meeting rooms of workers around the world – and more particularly in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe – with the aim of better understanding the local specificities of labor movements in different parts of the world.
Marie Brøndgaard was not part of the initial team that launched the research project, but she was able to draw inspiration from their work. An archaeologist by profession, she is project manager for the request for recognition of the workers’ meeting rooms as UNESCO heritage.
Each State Party to the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention can send one nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage Center each year. The Danish Workers’ Museum will send its joint application for 2022 with the Flemish UNESCO focal point – the focal points liaise between the candidate countries, UNESCO and the World Heritage Center – and four project partner meeting rooms in Melbourne and Broken Hill in Australia, Helsinki in Finland and Ghent in Belgium.
“There were humans behind the machines, and we’re trying to represent all of these people who made industrialization possible, who had to shape these new lives, who suddenly worked in a very new way,” she says.
The 2021 appeal produced mixed results, as Brøndgaard and his colleagues learned that some buildings in the workers’ hall have been redeveloped since their construction, have become dilapidated, or have been demolished to make way for other buildings. “A lot of German buildings would have been seized by the Nazis and would then have become administrative centers for the trade unions,” explains Brøndgaard. She adds that they have heard of many buildings dedicated to one type of activity for workers – for example, administration – but they are looking for multifunctional labor halls that would have offered activities for men, women and women. children.
Brøndgaard says she and her colleagues also wanted to better understand the interconnections between different buildings and how local workrooms – and movements – inspired their counterparts in other parts of the world. “A Miners’ Hall in Britain might have been inspired by the Melbourne Trades Hall, indicating an interchange of ideas from this ‘building movement,'” she says. “British immigrants or convicts in Australia may have brought ideas about workers’ rights there, but it also shows how other ideas would have returned to the UK.”
“Outstanding Universal Value”
The Workers’ Museum in Denmark decided to apply for a so-called serial transnational nomination to UNESCO to highlight the global nature of the halls and the importance of labor movements in different social contexts. This category is for heritage that transcends a country’s borders. This includes for example the Danube Limes, which includes sites in Austria, Germany and Slovakia; and the Stećci Medieval Tombstone Cemeteries, with 28 sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia.
“We emphasize the values of worker dignity, emancipation, equal rights, access to democratization and solidarity in our Statement of Outstanding Universal Value,” Brøndgaard said. “It is very important that the self-organization of workers occurs despite the resistance of society to them obtaining a voice and a place in society.”
The Flemish UNESCO focal point became involved in the museum’s campaign after a former local workers’ hall contacted the Flemish organization for more information on the Danish initiative. According to Piet Geleyns of the Flemish focal point of UNESCO, the procedure to be registered on the UNESCO heritage list is anything but simple. “To be recognized as World Heritage, a property will have to demonstrate that it has ‘outstanding universal value’. In short, that it is exceptional and not only in or towards a small part of the world”, he explains. “To assess whether this is the case, the World Heritage Committee has developed ten criteria, and you must meet at least one criterion to meet the requirement.”
A site may qualify as World Heritage, among other things, if it represents an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement; testifies to an exceptional cultural tradition; or is an area of outstanding natural beauty. But it’s more difficult than it seems at first glance, says Geleyns.
The request for recognition as world heritage must also include a so-called comparative analysis, which must show the exceptional character of the proposed sites. “The World Heritage Committee also assesses the authenticity and integrity of the nomination, verifies whether appropriate protection is provided and management requirements are met,” Geleyns says.
Authenticity is about the credibility of what is offered, he explains. “The original Eiffel Tower deserves a spot on the list – not the fakes that were built in Las Vegas or China,” he says, adding that a proposed site must also be well-preserved to meet the environmental requirement. integrity. “If Stonehenge had only been one or two stones, it probably wouldn’t have been on the list.”
A serial nomination, he adds, suggests that each of the nominated sites should be considered a crucial book chapter.
“Each contributes in essential ways to the “outstanding universal values” of the proposed series. Leave one out and, in theory, the book becomes unreadable,” he explains.
“It also works the other way around: if you are registered on the [World Heritage] List, and a problem occurs with one component, the whole series is in danger,” he says.
By submitting their application, the applicant organizations undertake to ensure the proper preservation of the proposed World Heritage sites. The request must also include a management plan that explains how a State Party or site manager will ensure the conservation of attributes of Outstanding Universal Values. If the UNESCO World Heritage Committee determines that a site is not adequately protected, the heritage title may be revoked.
As for the Danish Workers’ Museum and its project partners in Australia, Finland and Belgium, they will have to be patient. Although the museum plans to submit its application before the end of the year, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee will not decide on the application until 2025.