Whether it be advancing rights at work, campaigning for decent leave and entitlements, securing democratic freedoms, or showing international solidarity in the fight for social justice, unions are there, providing a voice for working Australians.
Unions are part of a long tradition of ordinary people coming together to campaign for progressive reform in Australia – a tradition you may not have read about in the history books. This includes the proud history of Indigenous struggle from the earliest days of invasion and colonisation, but also the actions of those who were brought here against their will. Transported convicts took the first recorded industrial action in Australia in 1791 to secure weekly rations. In 1804 a group of convicts broke free and launched an uprising, renaming the place where they made their stand ‘Vinegar Hill’ after the scene of a famous battle in Ireland against British rule in a revolution there. These movements created a legacy of protest for equality that unions have proudly continued throughout our history and maintain today.
Unions have been around since the 1830s in Australia, and they have done some pretty incredible things. Union campaigns secured an eight-hour day, helped establish a minimum wage, and won equal pay claims for working women. But eventually it became clear that to best protect their interests individual unions needed to have an organisation that could represent union members nationally. In 1927 the ‘Australasian Council of Trade Unions’ was formed for this purpose, later renamed the Australian Council of Trade Unions, or ACTU.
The ACTU has not just played a pivotal role in making Australia a fairer and more just place in the past – we are committed to making a better future for working families.
What is it we do?
We provide a single representative union voice to the government and employers. Unions bargain for increased wages, better and safer industrial conditions, and greater dignity for people at work. Wage increases, better safety standards, more time off from work – these things don’t just happen. Unions have campaigned for and won such changes, and this is central to our purpose.
By coming together through a union, employees have a far greater capacity to negotiate terms and conditions than if they had to negotiate individually with their employer; especially when those employers are able to hire expensive lawyers to get the best deal. By being part of a union, you can make sure that you and your workmates get a fair go.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, union members earn on average $275 more a week than non-union members. It pays to be in your union.
The ACTU plays an important national representative function, making sure that there is always a strong union voice in the public debate arguing for a fair go for working people. For example, every year the ACTU argues for an increase to the minimum wage.
But we don’t just wait for politicians to start talking about the issues that matter most to working families – we build political pressure to make sure these discussions take place. We do this by campaigning in workplaces, industries, communities, and on the street.
We also continue the Australian union movement’s proud tradition of international solidarity. In the past Australian unions were staunch supporters of international movements for freedom and democracy. In 1938, when the Japanese Imperial Forces invaded and occupied parts of China, union members on the docks in Australia refused to load pig iron bound for Japan that was destined to be turned into bullets.
During the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, the ACTU lent our support to the movement for racial justice and equality, leading a boycott of South African goods, and the Springbok Rugby Team during its tours of Australia. In August 2019 the Australian union movement was awarded the Medal of the Order of Timor-Leste in recognition of the long tradition of solidarity with the independence movement there.
We continue this legacy of engagement and support for international union and democratic movements, and through the Union Aid Abroad Charity, APHEDA, works to empower local communities in the developing world.
The ACTU’s job is to help working people get a fair go at work, and in broader society. The only way to make sure working people have a voice is to join your union. Click here to find out more, or give us a ring on 1300 362 223.