The Federated Furnishing Trade Societies of Australasia formed in 1909, combining a number of state-based forerunners including the United Furniture Trade Society of Victoria (1868-1909) and the United Furniture Trade Society of NSW (1866-1909). It became the Federated Furnishing Trade Society of Australasia in 1914. “At the time of federation the furnishing trades in Victoria worked a 48-hour week […] There were no public holidays, no annual leave, no sick pay, no right to notice and no long service leave.” (Beaton, p65)
The Society's Federal Office was based in Melbourne with branches in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, and the ACT.
The union covered cabinet makers, French polishers, upholsterers, mattress makers, piano makers, carpet layers, furnishing drapery, wicker workers, and in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania wood machinists and workers in the flat glass trade as well as automotive glass, baby carriages, coffins, musical instrument makers and organ makers.
Operating until 1993, the Society eventually amalgamated with the Federated Brick Tile & Pottery Industrial Union of Australia and the Operative Painters' & Decorators' Union of Australia into the Construction Forestry Mining & Energy Union.
The Noel Butlin Archives Centre holds various deposits of Federated Furnishing Trade Society records, from the Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, NSW and Ballarat branches. The records held give insights into many aspects of the furnishing trades, including the anti-conscription campaign during World War I, and the division of labour between men and women and their unequal pay. The cheapness of female labour made them desirable workers for some employers, and meant that they were susceptible to sacking when the wages board raised their pay or when they turned 21.
Chinese furnishing trade
The Federated Furnishing Trades Society records show numerous examples of the anti-Chinese sentiment which was an explicit and enduring aspect of furnishing trades unionism.
The Chinese were particularly skilled furniture makers and set up workshops in Melbourne’s China Town. The conditions for the workers were abominable; they lived on the premises, sleeping on the floor of the workshops and working long hours, seven days a week. As a result, the furniture produced was a serious threat to the marketing of European-made furniture. It was good quality but with such low labour costs it could be sold much more cheaply. Not only was the Chinese-made furniture a threat to the industry, but also the existence of the cheap pool of labour was a double threat to the workers. The Society could have embraced the Chinese furniture workers and fought for them to have equal conditions but that option was not considered. (Beaton, p42)
The Noel Butlin Archives Centre also hold records of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of New South Wales, who campaigned on behalf of Chinese manufacturers and traders, and against legislation that targeted Chinese labour such as the New South Wales Factories & Shops (Amendment) Bill of 1926.
Lynn Beaton, Part of the Furniture: Moments in the History of the Federated Furnishing Trades Society of Victoria, Melbourne University Publishing, 2007.
Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1978.