Interview: Crowded Lives
Activists: Life With Brian
Industrial: National Focus
Unions: If These Walls Could Talk
Economics: Beating the Bastards
Media: Three Corners
History: The Brisbane Line
Trade: The Dumping Problem
Review: Frankie's Way
The Locker Room
Spicey and Tart
Tony and Pauline
PNG Bags Plastic
Fighting Words Craig Emerson
If These Walls Could Talk
Down at No 4 Goulburn St, where Chinatown intersects with Darling Harbour, they always knew how to cut a deal. Some of the goings on at Trades Hall have, over the years, become famous, even infamous, depending on your perspective.
But those days are long gone, driven by union amalgamations and the westward move of the city's working men and women. In fact, when they board the old building up after 113 years and the builders move in for a long-promised refit, only two unions will be affected.
The Musicians and the Funeral Workers, appropriately enough, hung around for the wake. But it would be wrong to think the colour disappeared with the old school.
Walk up the marble steps into the rabbit warren and you are transported back to the days when men were men and women, by and large, were seen but not heard.
Trades Hall is living history - industrial, political and architectural. It is also a bit of a shambles.
Theoretically, there are four floors but you could make a reasonable case for five or even six. There are mezzanine half floors and sub-floors. Over the years, its grown like topsy, after topsy had one too many at the bar down below.
In the corridors, sunlight plays on intricate ironwork below tall sandstone roofs but there are plenty of rooms that natural light never visits. If the Japanese did land in Sydney, there is every chance the remnants of the invasion force are holed-up somewhere in Trades Hall.
It's precisely that atmosphere, sort of grand dero, that attracted most of the current clientelle. That, and the cheap rents.
Trades Hall, this past decade or so, has become home to a collection of artists, lawyers, designers, accountants, film makers, model agencies, animators, immigration consultants, community groups and assorted fly-by-nights.
But, in their midst, are some who bridge the gaps with its past.
Cleaners who will turn in their keys when the Labor Council calls "all out" on September 30 have lived through the transformation.
At least a couple were on hand for early-80s events that wrote Trades Hall's latest pages in Sydney's folklore.
One, on condition of anonymity, takes up the story of a murder that saw some inhabitants referred to counselling services.
The victim, Donna, was an early employee of APHEDA Union Aid Abroad. She survived tours of duty in Africa and Asia but not a knife attack that left blood splattered around the building.
"We just heard a high-pitched squealing," the cleaner recalled, "it sounded like a dog being run over in the street.
"We raced down to the front doors on the corner of Dixon and Goulburn Streets to find her slumped in the doorway. She had been carved up like a Sunday roast, her arms, legs and guts had all been slashed and her eyes were glazed over.
"We didn't know what to do . .. we were doing what we could when my mate says - look behind you - this little bloke was just standing there, eyes staring straight ahead, wiping a small hunting knife on his leg.
"Eventually, two coppers came along on horse back and the senior one asks what's going on. When we make him understand, he shits himself, doesn't know what to do, must have put a call through, though, next thing about 10 detectives come flying out of Chinatown and they all pull their guns ..."
A few hours later, Donna died in hospital.
Then there was the Builders Labourers Federation shambles as out-of-towners moved on Jack Mundey supporters and a vision of unionism Melbourne strong man Norm Gallagher loathed for its embrace of "residents, sheilas and poofters".
For the best part of a month, Mundey loyalists barricaded themselves inside the organisation's Trades Hall office. Every excursion for food or toilet paper signalled a stink with opponents hell-bent on annexing their base.
"They'd been blacklisted by Labor Council," one of the cleaners recalled "but they weren't about to give up. They holed-up inside for around four weeks.
"Every time someone came out for supplies it was on for young and old. They had to fight their way out and fight their way back in.
"There were newspaper people around, bomb threats, but, to us, it was just entertainment."
Everyone remembers the telephone sales crew that came and went. They arrived mob-handed, hit the phones and decamped just as quickly.
"You didn't have to ring up," a cleaner explained, "you could buy anything for a third of retail. The only thing you couldn't get was a warranty."
And there was the lawyer who departed in the company of officers from the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.
Movies and television shows have been shot in and around the building.
There is little doubt Trades Hall would have played host to ASIO types and, none at all, that from time to time it housed under-cover police.
Claire Pickard and Julie Clark, directors of successful design house, Go Media, lived through the changes.
Clark has worked out of Trades Hall for 22 years, and Pickard 16, since their company's early days as Union Media Services.
They remember the killing, the occupation, the cleaner who died, paintbrush in hand, in one of the toilet cubicles, as well as police taking over the loft for months, aiming directional microphones down Dixon St towards the heart of Chinatown.
Clark and Pickard never did get to the bottom of that one, nor the Chinese parking voucher schemes that were all the rage in the early 1990s.
Their company established itself on jobs with the Miners, Nurses, Actors, Journalists, Teachers, Maritime Workers, CPSU, CEPU, the Misos, Clothing Trades Union and the PSA.
Then they moved into a better office, across from the entrance to Darling Harbour, where natural light made up for the occasional sandstone shower as the Gestalt therapist in the room above inspired clients into fits of new-age frenzy.
Clark and Pickard fit comfortably with the cartoonists, animators, architects and painters that have sprouted up around them.
John Bell is one, often on the road in Queensland or country NSW, displaying paintings and drawings, or catching up with children and grand children scattered around the state.
Another artistic-type in the building says Bell will be "invited into any gallery in the country when he's dead".
He is, she says, "far too prickly" to achieve that status in life.
Architect Tony Beattie concurs.
He speaks for most when he says cheap rent and the heritage surroundings were Trades Hall's first attractions. Then he furthers his practical credentials, revealing it was the on-site barber and bar that swung it for him.
Memories of the long-standing ad of the building's long-standing barber became a long-standing joke.
His window was adorned with the traditional blue, white and red barber's pole and just three words - barber, drinks, smokes.
"Yeah, but can he cut hair?" was the universal reaction.
An unexpected bonus for Beattie has been Friday night practice sessions of the highly-regarded Chinese choir whose music fills hallways and lift wells like they were parts of some oriental cathedral.
Trade union artist in residence, Ingrid Skirka, also straddles the culture divide. Her studio is home to a dozen recent portraits, many glorifying the naked forms of pregnant friends. Another catches Workers Online's resident tool man, Phil Doyle, in a rare thoughtful pose.
Skirka has just painted State Minister Michael Costa, fully clothed, for the Labor Council, a work that will sit in its boardroom alongside likenesses of other former secretaries.
Her involvement with the movement took off in the build-up to the Sydney Olympics when, over the space of two years, she painted hundreds of workers labouring on Games preparations.
Approaches to their employers didn't even raise an acknowledgement. It was only when the CFMEU learned of her work that it saw the light of day at exhibitions in the city, Lidcombe and at State Parliament.
"At first I was surprised," Skirka admits, "then I realised the corporations just weren't interested in showing their workers. They didn't even ask to see the paintings."
One, called Mates, features 900 building workers.
Skirka is another taken with the beauty of her surroundings, best nailed, perhaps, in Pickard's assessment.
"This place was built by master tradesmen who were building it for themselves. It was going to be their clubhouse," she said.
Skirka has captured much of that feeling in a series of photographs, highlighting everything from the strength and durability of marble, iron and hardwood to how the sun lights apparently-dinghy hallways in strange and unexpected ways.
Still, signs of the original inhabitants are everywhere, even if some Johnny Come Lately has transformed Textile Workers into Tactile Workers.
There are only memories, though, of outfits like the Felt Hatters, Cigar Makers, Coal Lumpers, and Hairdressers and Wig Makers.
Like every self-respecting, old building Trades Hall has its ghosts. Tales of lifts that operate themselves, lights that switch on and off in the wee, small hours and what many describe as "just a presence".
Stick your nose in before the place is barricaded up and you'll find signposts to Sydney's future or memories of its past, depending on whether you approach from the half-full or half-empty side of the street.
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