Union banners – their symbolism and significance – was the topic chosen for discussion at the Sydney Branch’s first talk session, held at Sydney University on 28 June last. The gathering of some 25 members and friends of the Labour History Society received the benefit of two stimulating and quite distinct interpretations of labour movement banners. Mr Norm Little, of the Labor Council of N.S.W. presented an excellent audio-visual piece on the banners of the late 19th century union movement and on the fine effort being made at present to restore and rehouse these symbols of craft solidarity. He made particular mention of the planned ‘Historical Museum of the Labour Movement’ which is to be established in the lower section of the Trades Hall Building once renovations are complete. This, he said, would enable permanent public display of a number of the mos t finely-crafted banners, as well as allow display of a wide array of other material representative of the history of Australian labour and the labour movement.
Dr Terry Smith, of Sydney University, also treated the group to a ‘magic lantern’ show and, in doing so, wove a fascinating tale about the introduction to Australia of the specific skills and technique associated with production of the earlier banners. Even more intriguing was his analysis of the art traditions drawn together in the banners and his interpretation of the rich allegory and symbolism displayed thereon. To provide a contemporary contrast, Terry went on to discuss some of the banner art he and friends had produced for recent May Day marches.
A spirited group exchange followed the two presentations, with discussion centering on the interpretation of banner art. Were the banners representative only of a craft consciousness? Was the symbolism of the earlier banners chiefly patriarchal? Is the apparent respectability and reformism of the earlier banners to be preferred to the seemingly more frank political statements characteristic of today’s banners? Though far from achieving concensus on these questions, the discussion did serve to ‘remind all of the value of, and indeed need for open debate on the historical record, including the traditional symbolism, of the labour movement.