Could workers’ assembly halls soon become World Heritage sites?

Could workers' assembly halls soon become World Heritage sites?

Located in the original Workers Assembly Building constructed by the labour movement in 1879, the Workers Museum in the centre of Copenhagen, Denmark, features exhibitions on 150 years of industrial history, the lives of working-class children around 1930, and the lives of Danish working-class families in the 1950s.

(Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP)

In April 1856, a group of stonemasons in Melbourne, Australia, walked off their jobs in protest over their employers’ refusal to accept their demand for an eight-hour workday. In the weeks that followed, the ‘eight-hour movement’ grew stronger, and the employers eventually accepted 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 wage.

Following that victory, the Melbourne committee of stonemasons decided to build a ‘People’s Palace’, which was to serve as a forum for future convenings. Financed and built by the workers themselves, a first temporary structure in timbre was constructed in 1859, while works on the first permanent building were completed in 1874. That building, the Victorian Trades Hall, is one of the world’s oldest continuously operating union buildings and is today home to various trade unions and a workers’ museum.

In the next decades, similar buildings built by workers and/or for workers sprung up around the world. Public open-air 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 Saarland mine worker donated bricks and two German marks to construct a union house in Friedrichsthal, which is today the oldest union building in Germany. The Hall of Trade Unions in the Ghanian capital of Accra was built between 1958 and 1960, and Ghana’s first president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, donated it to the workers of Ghana in appreciation of their contribution towards the fight 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 goal behind the initiative is to showcase the regional characteristics of labour movements across the globe and to have UNESCO recognise the workers’ halls as World Heritage sites.

Liberty, equality, and solidarity

Located in the original Workers Assembly Building constructed by the labour movement in 1879, the Workers Museum in the centre of Copenhagen, Denmark, features exhibitions on 150 years of industrial history, the lives of working-class children around 1930, and the lives of Danish working-class families in the 1950s. This was the decade when, in the museum’s words, workers “bid farewell to deprivation” thanks to higher wages, and post-World War II hardships made way for a growing consumerism.

In 2008, a Workers Museum team began researching workers’ assembly halls. They completed a large-scale comparative study of 58 assembly halls in 23 countries in Western Europe, Australia and North America, which showed how the labour movement developed in distinct ways in various parts around the world. Although various staff members would work on the study as a side-project over the following years, the project got a new lease on life in 2021. That year, the museum launched a call inviting members of the public to submit workers’ assembly halls around the globe – and especially in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe – with the goal of better understanding the local specificities of labour 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 on their work. An archaeologist by profession, she is the project leader for the application to recognise workers’ assembly halls as UNESCO heritage.

Each state party to the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention can send one nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre each year. The Danish Workers Museum will send its 2022 joint nomination together with the Flemish UNESCO Focal Point – focal points act as liaisons between applicant countries, and UNESCO and the World Heritage Centre – and four assembly hall partners in the project in Melbourne and Broken Hill in Australia, Helsinki in Finland, and Ghent in Belgium.

“There were humans behind the machines, and we are trying to represent all those people who made possible the industrialisation, who needed to shape these new lives, who suddenly worked in a very new way,” she says.

The 2021 call produced mixed results, as Brøndgaard and her colleagues learned some workers’ hall buildings have been repurposed since they were first built, have become dilapidated, or were taken down to make way for other buildings. “A lot of the German buildings would have been seized by the Nazis and then later became administrative centres for unions,” explains Brøndgaard. She adds that they learned about many buildings dedicated to one type of activity for workers – for instance administration – but that they are looking for multi-functional workers’ halls that would have offered activities for men, women and children.

Brøndgaard explains that she and her colleagues also wanted to better understand the interconnections between different buildings and the ways in which local labour halls – and movements – inspired their counterparts in other parts of the world. “A Miners’ Hall in Britain could have been inspired by the Melbourne Trades Hall, which would indicate an exchange of ideas of this ‘buildings movement,’” she says. “British immigrants or convicts to Australia might have brought ideas of workers’ rights there, but this also shows how other ideas would have travelled back to the UK.”

‘Outstanding universal value’

The Workers Museum in Denmark decided to apply for a so-called transnational serial UNESCO nomination to showcase the global nature of the halls and the importance of labour movements in different social contexts. This category is meant for heritage that transcends the boundaries of one country. This for instance includes the Danube Limes, which comprise sites in Austria, Germany and Slovakia; and the Stećci Medieval Tombstones Graveyards, with 28 sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia.

“We emphasise the values of dignity of workers, emancipation, equal rights, access to democratisation and solidarity in our statement of outstanding universal value,” says Brøndgaard. “It is very important that the self-organisation of workers happen despite societal resistance to them getting a voice and a place in society.”

The Flemish UNESCO Focal Point became involved with the museum’s campaign after a local former workers’ hall reached out to the Flemish organisation for more information about the Danish initiative. According to Piet Geleyns from the Flemish UNESCO Focal Point, the procedure to be listed as a UNESCO heritage site is anything but straightforward. “To be recognised as World Heritage, a property will have to demonstrate that it is of ‘outstanding universal value.’ In short, that it is exceptional and not only in or to 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 need to meet at least one criterion to fulfil the requirement.”

A site can qualify as World Heritage, among others, if it represents an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement; testifies to an exceptional cultural tradition; or is an area of exceptional natural beauty. But this is harder than it might seem at first glance, Geleyns explains.

The application to be recognised as World Heritage also needs to include a so-called comparative analysis, which has to show the exceptionality of the proposed sites. “The World Heritage Committee also assesses the authenticity and integrity of the proposal, checks whether the appropriate protection is ensured and whether management requirements are met,” Geleyns says.

Authenticity relates to the credibility of what is proposed, he explains. “The original Eiffel Tower merits a place on the list – not the knockoffs that were built in Las Vegas or China,” he says, adding that a proposed site must also be well preserved to meet the requirement of integrity. “If Stonehenge would have been only one or two stones, it probably would not have made it on the list.”

A serial nomination, he adds, suggests that each of the proposed sites should be seen as a crucial book chapter.

“Each contributes in an essential way to the ‘outstanding universal values’ of the proposed series. Leave one out and, in theory, the book becomes unreadable,” he explains.

“This also works the other way round: if you are inscribed on the [World Heritage] List, and a problem pops up with one component part, the entire series is in danger,” he says.

By submitting their application, applicant organisations commit to the proper preservation of the proposed World Heritage sites. The application must also include a management plan that explains how a state party or a site manager will ensure the conservation of the attributes of outstanding universal values. If the UNESCO World Heritage Committee determines that a site is not being protected properly, the heritage title can be revoked.

As for the Danish Workers Museum and its project partners in Australia, Finland and Belgium, they will need to be patient. Although the museum plans to submit its nomination application before the end of the year, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee will only decide on the bid in 2025.