History of unions

History of unions

Read about the long and proud history of unionism in Australia.

This short history of Australian unions traces the key moments and achievements of the union movement over the last two hundred years from convict rebellions over work and living conditions, through to more recent struggles for maternity leave, superannuation and accident compensation. Download this booklet produced for the 75th anniversary of the ACTU in 2002, or read on.


In this period New South Wales was settled as an English penal colony after the landing of Captain Phillip on 26th January, 1788. The majority of First Fleeters, the convicts, certainly deserve to be called workers, and their struggles were a lead up to unionism in Australia. Some notable occurrences were:

Convicts Strike: demanding daily issue of rations, not weekly issue.

Castle Hill Rebellion: protest on conditions and rations.

James Straighter, convict shepherd sentenced to 500 lashes, one month solitary confinement on bread and water, and five years penal servitude for ... "inciting his Masters' servants to combine for the purposes of obliging him to raise the wages and increase their rations".

Masters and Servants Act of NSW provided that ... "servants could be imprisoned and have their wages forfeited for refusal to work or for destruction of property, and that Masters found guilty of ill-usage should be liable to pay damages up to 6 months wages".

Typographers, supported by carpenters, successfully strike for payment in sterling, against currency reform, which threatened the value of wages.

Shipwrights union formed.

Boatbuilders union formed.

Cabinetmakers union formed.

Society of Compositors strike and win wage increase of 5s5d per week.

Society of Compositors campaign to restrict the number of apprentices. The government uses convict compositors as strike- breakers.

Economic depression leads to the formation of the Mutual Protection Society to protect the interests of the middle and working classes of N.S.W

The Early Closing Movement seeks the reduction of working hours from 14 to 12 per day.

Political activity of the working class leads to the formation of the Anti-Transportation League.


This period saw the early development of Australian trade unions. Legislation had existed in Britain that outlawed unions, similar in intent to the Masters and Servants Act, until the passing of the Trade Union Act in 1871. The English and Irish anti-union legislation was not particularly successful in those countries, nor did it prevent union activity in Australia. Transportation ended in the eastern states in 1853, in W.A. in 1868. Various craft unions were formed. Gold was discovered in Bathurst in 1851.

Stonemasons union formed.

The Eureka Stockade results in the deaths of 10 Irish, 2 Scots, 2 Canadians, 2 English, 2 Germans and 1 Australian.

The 8 Hour Day Movement is formed by the Stonemasons in Melbourne and Sydney. Melbourne Trades Hall Committee help unions to co-operate with each other.

Men of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station Victoria demand wage payments for their labour and official tenure of the station.

The Sydney Trades and Labor Council formed.

The Amalgamated Miners Association formed.

The first Seamans Unions formed in Sydney and Melbourne.

The Seamans Union organises the maritime strike against the use of cheap Chinese labour by the Australian United Steam Navigation Company.

The Inter-Colonial Trade Union Congress - the forerunner of the ACTU - is formed. Congress unanimously opposes Chinese immigration.

The N.S.W. Trade Union Act is passed giving union rights and registration.

The Victorian Tailoresses Union is formed, as is the Waterside Workers Union.

The Intercolonial Trade Union Congress is attended by women delegates.

The first Board of Arbitration resolves the dispute in favour of the workers.

The Shearers Union formed.

Employers form the employers unions - the Pastoralists Union the Chamber of Manufacturers and the Steamship Owners Association.

The Shearers Union strike over freedom of contract.

Miners strike in Broken Hill over wage cuts and employment of scabs.

The Shearers Union strikes again on same issues. The Masters and Servants Act is used against the union - 23 years after England proclaimed the Trade Union Act. Women win the right to vote - for the first time in the world - in South Australia.

Intercolonial Trade Union Congress resolves to extend the restrictions on Chinese immigration to all non-European peoples.



The experience of the 1890's convinced unionists that legislation establishing Arbitration and Conciliation Courts was required. During the period to 1904 the Australian Labour Federation was formed, the first Labor government in the world was elected in Queensland and the first federal Labor Government was formed in 1904.

Union membership 97200 (population 3,774,000). NSW Industrial Arbitration Act passed.

Women in NSW and Commonwealth receive the vote.

Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission established.

The Minimum Basic Wage is established by Mr Justice Higgins in the Harvester Award.

Union membership 364,700

Strikes in Brisbane over the Tramways Co. refusal to recognise members' right to wear union badges.

The Australian Workers Union formed by rural worker organisations.

44 hour week awarded to timberworkers and engineers. Others follow suit.

Union membership 703,000.

Federal Crimes Act amended to apply to unions - known as the "Dog Collar Act".

ACTU is formed.

Women are receiving 54% of male wage rates. During the Great Depression the Industrial Court abandons the "needs" concept of wage fixing and introduces a 10% wage cut.

Union membership 769,000.

The "Dog Collar Act" is applied to waterside workers who refuse to load scrap iron for shipment to Japan.



World War 2 had a big impact on the Australian workforce. Women entered the workforce in large numbers and, for the first time, many earned wages close to male rates. Large scale post-war migration started to change the nature of the workforce and Australian culture. The Liberal-Country Party was elected to govern Australia for almost 30 years. Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War generated a mass anti-war movement involving some unions. The short term of the Whitlam Labor Government (72-75) saw a number of significant reforms including equal pay (in principle).

As a result of the second World War, women replace male workers in a wide range of industries. Workbased child care facilities are provided and most receive 90% of male rates. 200 of Cummeragunga (NSW) Reserve's 300 Aboriginal residents pack their bags and leave. The mass desertion is both a spontaneous protest about life on the reserve and an industrial action to deprive the management of their agriculture labour.

Annual Leave of one week becomes standard. Union membership 1,076,600.

Total membership of unions affiliated with the ACTU reaches 300,000. Two weeks annual leave is introduced.

Men replace women in industry. Child care centres are closed. Union membership 1,284,300. Aboriginal workers on stations in the Pilbara, Western Australia, go on strike for better wages and conditions; the strike lasts until 1949.

Queensland Railways strike runs for 9 weeks. Queensland meat dispute - following a campaign organised by the ACTU. 40 hour week is gained. Prime Minister Chifley restores penal provisions.

The Coal Strike for 35 hour week and Long Service Leave result in the use of troops under the "National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act".

The female wage rate is lifted to 75% of the male wage rate.

Cost of living increases are abolished by the Australian Commission. Penal powers over unions give "teeth to the Act", allowing heavy fines and jail sentences to be applied to unions, officials and members who participate in industrial action.

Union membership 1,690,200.

ACTU restructures its Executive to allow unions from each industry group to elect a representative member.

Annual Leave of 3 weeks becomes standard.

ACTU files claims to remove the discriminatory clauses in the Federal and State awards relating to the employment of Aborigines.

  • Pastoral Industry Award
  • Station Hands Award
  • Cattle Station Industry (NT) Award

Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission hands down a decision to grant Aborigines on Northern Territory Cattle Stations equal pay with Europeans from 1st December 1968.

A Federal referendum gives a massive "YES" vote for Aboriginal people to gain Australian citizenship and Federal control of Aboriginal affairs. Aborigines thereafter are to be included in the census.

The ACTU's Equal Pay Case paves the way for women to receive pay equal to that of men performing same duties by 1975.

Union membership 2,436,600.

The ACTU's second equal pay case results in the principle of equal pay for equal work being established.

Four weeks annual leave.

Wage indexation is introduced as the main method of wage fixing. Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA) established.

The first work related child care centre since the Second World War is opened at Ryde.

ACTU expands after the merger of the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Association (ACSPA). The right of women workers to 12 months unpaid maternity leave is achieved.

Wage Indexation is abandoned. 38 hour week is achieved in federal Metal Industry and other awards. ACTU expands after the merger of the Council of Australian Government Employee Organisation (CAGEO).


Female worker standing in protest with a sign calling for equal pay



The Accord between the ACTU and the ALP, and the election of a Federal Labor Government in 1983 ushered in a new phase in industrial relations. Unions became involved in tripartite processes and significant changes were made to industrial relations legislation. Maternity leave, occupational superannuation, then later, family leave became award entitlements. Structural problems in the economy were addressed by unions through award restructuring. A policy of strategic unionism was adopted which saw the amalgamation of some 300 unions into 20 "super" unions. Enterprise bargaining became the main avenue for wage increases. In the latter part of this era, conservative State and Federal Governments initiated anti-worker and anti-union legislation

The Accord ushers in a new era for industrial relations and economic management. Cost of living adjustments and a centralised system of wage fixation are introduced. ACTU Congress elects first woman to the ACTU Executive.

Job Protection Case. National Occupational Health & Safety Commission is established. Union membership 3,028,500.

Queensland power industry dispute leads to draconian anti-union law passed by State Parliament. ACTU Congress expands to incorporate State public service unions. The ACTU's test case on adoption leave is successful.

The Accord Mark 2. Introduction of universal superannuation for Australian workers

ACTU Congress elects 5 women to the ACTU Executive. The two tiered wage system is introduced. Unions begin a drive for industry and award restructuring.

ACTU/CAI issue joint statement on participative practices (industrial democracy). Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 is replaced by Industrial Relations Act 1988. Structural Efficiency Principle is introduced.

Unions embark on Award Restructuring process.

ACTU drive to reform the Australian education and training system.

Enterprise bargaining is introduced into Industrial Relations Act. Union amalgamation accelerates. ACTU supports the process of reconciliation with Australia's indigenous people. ACTU wins Parental Leave test case.

Victorian Government introduces legislation to reduce award and union coverage. ACTU Congress launches the Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander Trade Union Employment Development Strategy.

Industrial Relations Reform Act 1993 comes into operation.

Jennie George elected as first woman President of the ACTU. ACTU wins Personal Carers' Leave Test case.
First Organising Works Program begins to train new organisers.

Conservative Howard Government elected - introduces Workplace Relations Act, reducing workers entitlements under awards and severely limiting unions' capacity to organise and pursue members' interests

MUA dispute - union movement stands together and, with community support, wins a great victory against employer and Government attacks on the right to organise and be a union member.

Second wave of anti-union legislation from the Howard Government is defeated by a combination of union and community activity. Unions @ work adopted by ACTU as blueprint for renewal and rebuilding of the union movement. Greg Combet appointed Secretary of the ACTU.

The union scorecard:

  • The right of workers to form a union which elects its own independent representatives;
  • Award to ensure that employers observe minimum wages and working conditions;
  • Equal pay;
  • Long service leave;
  • Pay loading for evenings, nights and weekends;
  • Paid public holidays;
  • Periodic wage increases;
  • Maternity/adoption/parental leave;
  • Annual leave and leave loading;
  • Protective clothing and equipment provided by the employer;
  • Occupational health and safety laws;
  • Compensation for injury;
  • Occupational superannuation;
  • The right to be given notice and to be consulted about changes at work (eg new technology, planned retrenchments, new working arrangements);
  • Personal carer's leave.

2007 Your Rights at Work rally


More recently, unions and the ACTU have led a community campaign against the Howard Government’s industrial relations laws 'WorkChoices'. 

Sharan Burrow elected President of the ACTU.

Several high-profile corporate collapses, including Ansett Airlines, results in a campaign by union movement to secure workers’ entitlements. Federal Government responds by introducing workers’ entitlement safety net scheme – GEERS. ACTU takes landmark Reasonable Hours Test Case to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

Cole Royal Commission into the building and construction industry targets unions and their members.
ACTU holds Working Hours Summit. Unions in the construction industry begin securing 36 hour week for members.

A union-led campaign for fair compensation for asbestos victims of James Hardie culminates in the largest personal injury settlement in Australian history.

Unions launch the Your Rights at Work community campaign against the Howard Government’s proposed new workplace laws. On November 15, more than half-a-million Australians, many linked by a Sky Channel broadcast, gathered in capital cities and towns in a national day of protest.

WATCH: highlights of the Your Rights At Work campaign

Howard Government’s WorkChoices laws come into effect in March, ripping away protection from unfair dismissal, reducing basic workers’ entitlements, and neutering the independent industrial umpire.


Jeff Lawrence appointed Secretary of the ACTU.
Rudd Labor Government elected as a result of massive public backlash against WorkChoices.

Labor Government bans new Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts).

Fair Work Laws replace Workplace Relations Act (WorkChoices) and provide Australian workers with strong collective bargaining rights, protection from unfair dismissal and a robust safety net. An 18-week universal paid maternity leave scheme is announced in Federal Budget following 30 year union campaign.

Ged Kearney elected President of the ACTU. She replaces Sharan Burrow, who has been elected General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

National paid parental leave scheme begins.

Unions launch Secure Jobs.Better Future campaign to improve the rights and working lives of the 40% of the Australian workforce employed in insecure work.

Labor Government passes legislation to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

A Fair Work Australia ruling gives social and community sector workers pay increases of between 23% and 45% over the next eight years.

Dave Oliver elected Secretary of the ACTU. He replaces Jeff Lawrence.

Download this booklet produced for the 75th anniversary of the ACTU in 2002.

WATCH this video telling the story of the Your Rights At Work campaign.