History of Australian unions

Workers are stronger when we stick together. For almost two hundred years, workers have come together in their unions to organise, take action, and win. 

Throughout Australia’s history, unions have given working people a voice in their workplaces, but also in broader society. If you believe in the fair go and a better deal for working people, then join your union today. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article includes images of deceased persons. 

The origins of Australia’s union movement 

The British invasion and colonisation of Australia was based upon the violent displacement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from their land. From the outset, the Indigenous owners resisted this colonisation by the British. 

Early colonial life was underpinned by the transportation of convicts to Australia to serve terms of imprisonment and to be used as forced labour. The convicts were subject to brutal conditions and strict punishment if they stepped out of line. 

But harsh conditions create rebels. As early as 1791 there is evidence of convicts taking strike action to demand that their rations be distributed weekly. 

The most substantial act of convict resistance came in 1804 when a group of deportees, mostly from Ireland, launched an all-out rebellion in New South Wales. Inspired by the Irish independence movement, these convicts broke from their imprisonment and planned an armed uprising. 

They gathered at Rouse Hill, which they renamed Vinegar Hill in tribute to one of the most famous battles during the Irish revolution of 1798. The Australian Vinegar Hill rebels experienced a similar fate to their Irish counterparts: crushed by British military might. But it was clear that colonial authorities could not ill-treat the convicts without fear of reaction. 

Indigenous resistance and convict mutiny established a tradition of opposition to power and privilege in Australia. As the economy grew in the 1820s a recognisable working class formed and began to add to this rebellious legacy. 

In 1824 coopers went on strike, using a picket line for the first time in the country. In 1829 typographers on the Australian newspaper struck for higher wages. Workers in other trades soon followed: bakers, shoemakers, carpenters, seamen, and even whalers. All protested against low wages and poor conditions by banding together and withdrawing their labour. 

Colonial authorities were outraged at this impertinence and sought to keep working people in “their place”. In 1828 New South Wales introduced its Masters’ and Servants Act, under which the refusal to work could end in prosecution. 

In the 1830s labourers formed societies to represent their interests. These weren’t quite unions as we know them today. They were much smaller, usually having only 20 – 60 members, and were mainly concerned with pooling funds to protect against sickness and unemployment. 

Between 1830 and 1850 around twenty workers’ societies were founded in Sydney and about a dozen in Melbourne. Though not massive in number they started an important trend of working people coming together to protect their own interests. 

The Eureka Stockade

This reached a new level in the 1850s. The Gold Rush of that decade saw an explosion of wealth in the colony of Victoria and a mass migration down under. Many of these new migrants had been activists in the British labour movement or the Irish independence struggle. They came seeking greater freedom and the opportunity to make a fortune under new skies. 

The reality did not always match expectation. Miners on the gold fields, the diggers, were soon disaffected by colonial rule. Miners could not own the land that they worked and were at constant threat of eviction. They were forced to purchase licenses issued by the police, usually at extortionate rates. 

To make matters worse these diggers were denied the right to vote – the Legislative Council that ruled alongside the Governor was filled with appointed notables (ie: rich white men).

On 30 November 1854, after a police raid to enforce the licensing laws, 500 miners gathered at the goldfields near Ballarat and swore an oath to stand together in opposition to this punitive treatment. They built a stockade – the Eureka stockade – an act of outright rebellion.

On 3 December an attack from colonial military forces put an end to the uprising but not the rebellious spirit it represented. Eureka spurred democratic reform in the colony of Victoria and changes to the mining license and the right to own land.  

 “It is my duty now to swear you in, and to take with you the oath to be faithful to the Southern Cross. Now hear me with attention. The man who, after this solemn oath does not stand by our standard, is a coward at heart … We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.” 

Oath sworn at the Eureka Stockade. 

The mass migration of the Gold Rush brought working-class activists to Australia from across the world. New unions were formed. One union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, was founded onboard a ship from London by eager migrants who wanted to make sure they would be protected when they got here. The most important of these early unions were the Stonemasons Societies, founded in Melbourne and Sydney. 

Many of the stonemasons who came to Australia because of the boom of these years had previously been activists in the workers movement elsewhere. 

This was true of James Stephens, president of the Operative Stonemasons Society in Melbourne, and James Galloway, the society’s Secretary, both of who had been part of the British workers’ movement known as Chartism. 

Drawing on these traditions, Stonemasons in both cities launched a campaign to win the eight-hour day for their industry.

In Sydney, in 1855, sources suggest that Stonemasons on two worksites took action and won the eight-hour day. They showed it was possible! But the struggle continued to make this a standard across the industry.

So workers got organised. 

An early eight-hour day protest.

In Melbourne, on the 26th of March, Stonemasons and employers held a mass public meeting to discuss if the eight-hour day would be implemented. 

James Galloway argued at the meeting that social considerations have to be taken into account when deciding industrial conditions, not just what he described as the: 

“ethical absurdity, entitled the laws of supply and demand.” 

It was declared at the meeting that the eight hour day would begin as the new industry standard from 21 April. 

But not all employers agreed – and two large employers opposed the shortening of working hours without a reduction in pay. One of these employers had been contracted to build the Victorian parliament house building on Spring Street. 

On 21 April, Stonemasons working at the University of Melbourne, led by James Stephens, stopped work and marched into the city to demand the eight hour day across the industry immediately. 

As the protest continued, Stonemasons from other building sites joined the march. 

This march was intended to ensure compliance with the new standard, and to pressure the final employers to cede the right. 

It ended up at the parliament house, where the workers there declared they would strike until the demand for an eight-hour day was met. Soon after, the demand was ceded. Workers in Australia had set an international benchmark.

James Galloway gave voice to the Stonemasons who had come to Australia from elsewhere with hopes of creating a better life, saying: 

“we have come 16,000 miles to better our condition, and not to act the mere part of machinery.”

The Stonemasons were doing more than campaigning for an industrial right. They were asserting the fundamental humanity of the working person. 

The Stonemasons were insisting that as well as working hard, they had a right to decent rest and some recreation. Our lives, they argued, should not just be about the work we do. 

Today, we call this the work/life balance – and it has always been the union movement who have campaigned for a decent work/life balance for all working people. 

The Stonemasons didn’t wait for anyone to give them this right, they got together, organised, and took action. They won it. 

Tailoresses at work.

In the wake of this victory workers in other industries banded together to campaign for the eight-hour day, founding their own unions in the process. 

In 1882 the Melbourne-based clothing manufacturing company, Beith Shiess & Co, tried to reduce the wages of its women workers. The workers went on strike, eventually winning their demand for decent pay, and forming the Tailoresses Union – Australia’s first union composed wholly of working women. 

By 1890, Australia’s trade unions had become a large and significant force. Some employers perceived this as a threat to their business interests and sought to coordinate an anti-union offensive. As the chair of the Steamship Owner’s Association put it in July 1890:

“All the owners throughout Australia have signed a bond to stand by one another…I believe that never before has such an opportunity to test the relative strength of labour and capital arisen”. 

A strike in the maritime industry became that opportunity. The strike was prompted when shipowners objected to the Mercantile Marine Officers’ Association’s affiliation with the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. The Association represented the newly-unionised ships officers, and the last thing employers wanted was union solidarity between officers and the crew. 

The 1891 strike leaders.

At the same time, the Shearers’ Union was campaigning to protect working conditions in its industry through a boycott of wool produced by non-unionists. The Shearers asked maritime and dock workers not to handle wool that was shorn by non-union labour, merging the disputes into one. 

Despite union requests, the Employers’ Union refused to negotiate, leading to an elongated and bitter dispute. By September, 16,000 shearers were on strike. Employers and anti-union politicians were well-organised and more than willing to use the law to target striking workers. 

Special constables were enrolled to police the strikers’ actions. Public opinion was outraged when one Colonel distributed live ammunition to his troops, telling them that if clashes with striking workers took place they should “Fire low and lay them out”. It was a threat of violence that burned long in the memory of the labour movement. 

Over a two-month period, around 50,000 workers were involved in the strike, but the opposition from the employers proved too strong. In October the Marine Officers’ Association withdrew its affiliation to the Trades Hall Council. Soon after, the shearers too had to admit defeat. 

In both cases, an alliance of conservative politicians and employers proved too strong for the individual unions they had attacked. It became clear that unions could not just bring together workers in their individual industries, they would have to work collectively to change the laws of the land so that they could not be manipulated by greedy employers. 

The economic depression of the 1890s only increased conservative enthusiasm to curtail the power of the union movement, and employer groups prompted a series of showdowns with their workers. 

This was class warfare at its most fierce – an early example of the ruthlessness of unrestrained corporate-interests. 

A Shearer’s strike began in Queensland in 1891 when employers sought to introduce union-busting contracts and a reduction in pay rates. The repression was fierce. Strikers were literally read the Riot Act, and their leaders were arrested at bayonet-point. The workers were defeated, only to be subject to further attacks in the years that followed.

This dispute was so bitter that the anti-union premier introduced a law that would have allowed for secret trials and the arrest of trade unionists without a warrant. According to some conservatives, basic rights apply to everyone – except trade unionists! 

Striking workers were charged with breach of contract and imprisoned, with some facing trial for sedition. Often, hard labour in the prison system would be their punishment. The injustice was felt deeply, and even sung about, for years to come. 

How Australian unions helped make modern Australia: 1901 – 1918

By the time of Australia’s Federation in 1901 the union movement was established as a vital part of national life. 

Australian unions had won working rights and conditions enjoyed nowhere else in the world. Because of this Australia was known internationally as the land of the fair go, sometimes referred to as the “workingman’s paradise”. 

These rights and conditions were not just granted to working people – they had to be campaigned for and won by unions. The weekend, compensation for injured workers, a social security system, decent pay rises – all came from the actions of unionists. 

One of the most significant reforms of this era was the creation of the Arbitration Court, legislated by the Federal Government in 1904. 

After the bitter strikes and lockouts of the 1890s, unions advocated for a new system of industrial relations –  a new way for workers and employers to negotiate. 

This came to be known as arbitration. It involved the creation of a court for industrial disputes over pay and conditions. 

Unions hoped that this new system of arbitration would bring balance to the negotiations between employers and workers and reduce instances where unions would have to resort to costly and often lengthy industrial action. 

In 1907 a union case before the court led to the minimum wage being introduced – the Sunshine Harvester case

At this time, employers could apply for an exemption to certain excise duties if the President of the Arbitration Court certified that they paid “fair and reasonable” wages. 

Hugh McKay was the owner of the Sunshine Harvester factory which built combine harvesters. His claim to pay fair and reasonable wage was opposed by the union members who worked for him.

The President of the Court, Henry Bournes Higgins, decided to use this as a test case for what constituted a fair and reasonable wage. 

After hearing both the employers and the workers testify, Higgins ruled that a fair and reasonable wage was one that was based on more than what an employer claimed they could afford. He ruled that there should be a “basic wage” should take into account the costs of living in society and how much a worker requires to take care of their family. This created a minimum rate of pay that prevented a race-to-the-bottom on wages.

As Professor Marilyn Lake has demonstrated, this was an assertion of the basic human rights of the worker – the right to be considered as more than a unit of labour, but as a real human being with the innate right to live a decent and well supported life. 

Higgins explained, if your business model did not include paying your workers appropriate wages, you shouldn’t be in business. Plenty of modern employers could learn a lot from Justice Higgins! 

 “It is not the function of this Court to foster slackness in any industry; and if A, by his alertness and enterprise, and by his use of the best and most recent appliances, can make his undertaking pay on the basis of giving proper wages to his workmen, it would be most unjust to allow B, his lazy and shiftless rival, to pay his workmen lower wages. In short, the remuneration of the employee cannot be allowed to depend upon the profits actually made by his individual employer.”

HB Higgins 

Higgins’s ruling was a massive step forward and it set a new international benchmark. But it was a product of its time. 

Muriel Heagney – union champion for equal pay!

Higgins ruled that the basic rate would be what a male worker would need to take care of his family. 

Men, it was presumed, were the wage earners, while women were caregivers who would remain predominantly in the home. In a sexist double-standard the basic rate for women workers would later be set at around half that of a male worker.

Working women didn’t tolerate this – of course they didn’t! Women unionists have a long and proud tradition of campaigning for gender equity at work and in broader society, just as the Tailoresses did in the 1880s. 

One of the most famous and heroic expressions of this was the long campaign for equal pay. At this time women were not paid equal wages to men who did the same work, or similar work. This was a clear injustice that many working women came together to oppose. 

Women unionists in the federal public service managed to secure equal pay for women telegraphists and “postmistresses” in 1902. In other industries, women campaigned for equal pay, sometimes with success, but they were often met with great resistance. 

Muriel Heagney was a union activist who was passionate about winning equal pay. After her first involvement in the labour movement at this time she would spend the next six decades campaigning for gender equity. Unfortunately, union heroes such as Heagney are not given the credit they deserve in histories of Australia.

It was not only women who were denied access to equal pay and the fair go: racism towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders left most without equal wages, and labouring under harsh and discriminatory conditions. The new basic wage standard was only applied on a federal level, meaning it did not apply to the many First Nations workers who were denied wage equality due to racist state-based laws and standards. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders campaigned took action against this racism. 

At this time, it is important to remember, the main institutions of white Australia supported policies of racial exclusion and discrimination, especially aimed towards people from Asia. 

These policies, such as the racist White Australia policy, were widely endorsed by conservatives, liberals, and unions alike. 

A famous Claude Marquet anti-conscription cartoon published in a newspaper owned by the Australian Workers Union.

While celebrating the progressive reforms of this time, we should not forget the many who were denied these benefits. The union movement today will neither excuse nor justify the racist attitudes of the movement in this historical period, but instead will learn from it to make sure we do not make these mistakes again. 

In 1914 the First World War began. Over the course of the war tens-of-thousands of unionists signed up to the Australian Imperial Forces to serve at Gallipoli, and then on the Western Front. 

In 1916, however, the government sought to replace the volunteer system with conscription for overseas service. The union movement opposed this measure, insisting that Australians should be free to choose whether or not they would fight in Europe. 

A referendum was held on the issue, and unions united to oppose conscription. The leader of the union campaign was none other than John Curtin, later Australia’s Prime Minister during World War Two. This opposition was successful in 1916, and then again after a second vote was held in 1917.

1917 saw not just a second victory over conscription, but also one of the most intense industrial struggles in Australia’s history. In June of 1917 Railway Commissioners in New South Wales sought to introduce a new time card system that would intensely monitor and control workers, reducing them to little more than machines. 

The railway workers went on strike, and the dispute soon spread to other industries, and other states, lasting six weeks. At its height, around 100,000 workers were on strike.

There were constant marches in the major cities, and protests in smaller towns across New South Wales and Victoria. Regular Sunday protests in central Sydney peaked at around 150,000 participants. The railway strikers were joined by coal miners, stevedores, and sailors. Union women organised their own protests in defence of the strikers and to oppose the rising cost of living. 

The striking railway workers were sacked, and scab labour was hired to replace them. Among the dismissed was Ben Chifley, later a transformative Labor Prime Minister who was pivotal to the creation of Australia’s post-war welfare state. 

Strikers were subject to police harassment, many of their leaders were arrested, and one unionist, Merv Flanagan, was killed by a strike breaker. 

1917 strikers.

Ultimately, the strength of the state and federal governments working in tandem with employers was too great, and the strike was defeated. At the same time that the conservatives lectured workers on the need for cooperation in the national interest, they were more than willing to attack workers with the explicit intent of undermining their standards of work and union organisation. It was an example of hypocrisy the movement would not forget. 

Defending workers in a time of economic crisis and global war: 1918 – 1945

After the war, unions sought to regain pre-war conditions, or to extend the more favourable working rights some industries had gained since 1914, such as the 44-hour week. 

That’s right, one hundred years ago working 44 hours was considered a short week. 

Employers bitterly resisted such reforms, even when the economy had recovered and profits were booming. It became clear that unions couldn’t just campaign on an industry-by-industry basis. A national voice was needed to represent the entire movement. 

In 1927 unions gathered at the Melbourne Trades Hall building and formed the Australasian Council of Trade Unions as the movement’s peak body, later renamed the Australian Council of Trade Unions, or ACTU. 

This was an important step towards greater cooperation among the union movement, and it came at a vital time. In 1929 Australia was wracked by the Great Depression. This was a global financial crisis that devastated economies worldwide. One in three Australian workers were put out of a job. The basic wage was reduced by 10%, and unions had to fight tooth and nail just to survive. 

Once again, workers bore the cost of the bosses’ economic mismanagement. In 1929 10,000 miners in the Hunter Valley region were presented with new agreements including a 12.5% pay cut. 

They refused these terms and a fifteen month lock out began. The employers sought to bring in scab labour – and the workers protested to stop them. The New South Wales state government introduced legislation to ban their protests. 

Striking Unionists in Port Kembla

In December 1929, police opened fire on 4,000 protesting workers who were determined to stop scab labour from entering the colliery. One miner, Norman Brown, was shot dead. Another nine workers were injured by police bullets. After a gruelling struggle, the employers starved out the strikers who were finally forced to agree to their terms. 

As soon as the Depression was over, the next crisis arrived. Internationally, Fascism was on the rise. A military-backed government took power in Japan, intent on imperial expansion. In 1931 Japanese forces invaded Manchuria, and in 1937 launched an all-out invasion of China. 

In 1938, Waterside Workers’ Federation members at Port Kembla, near Wollongong, refused to load pig iron bound for military production in Japan onto the steamship Dalfram. They would not load iron that would be turned into bullets for war upon the Chinese people.

It was an important statement of solidarity with the resistance forces in China. When the Attorney General Robert Menzies threatened punitive action against the strikers he was dubbed “Pig Iron Bob”. 

This was part of an important tradition of international solidarity that the union movement proudly continues today

When the Second World War began in 1939 the labour movement swung its support behind the war effort. Through the war years, unionists again signed up in droves to defend Australia. 

 “…women consciously demand recognition of the fact that woman’s right to work rests not on the number of her dependants, nor on the fact that she does or does not compete with men, but in the absolute right of a free human being, a taxpayer and a voter, to economic independence. As such, she will not suffer dictation as to the intimate concerns of her life.”

Muriel Heagney 

In a variety of industries women filled the jobs left behind by mobilised men – yet most were not paid the wages that these men had received. Women unionists raised the demand for equal pay and recognition of their skills and service. 

Muriel Heagney was a prominent leader in this campaign. In 1937 she had helped found a union Council of Action that spearheaded the campaign for gender equity. In 1941 the ACTU officially adopted equal pay as a key demand. 

A Women’s Employment Board was created, setting the wages of women at anywhere between 60% – 100% of the male rate. But the rates that were secured only lasted as long as the war.

Australian unions after the war: 1945 – 1969

In the post-war era, Australian unions played an important role in making sure working people benefited from the economic boom of the time. In 1953, 63% of the workforce held a union membership card. 

In those days, Australia didn’t have enterprise bargaining, instead we had thousands of Awards which covered the workforce  – and each year the union movement would argue before the Arbitration Commission for a wage increase for everyone. 

Bob Hawke at the ACTU.

This is how Bob Hawke first came to national prominence – as the ACTU’s advocate to the Arbitration Commission.

Hawke was a passionate advocate for a better deal for working people. In one case, arguing that cost of living adjustments needed to be applied to wage increases to ensure real wages kept up with prices, Hawke addressed the Court for twelve consecutive days. 

 One Justice recalled of Hawke’s efforts that:

“He had reached the stage where he physically couldn’t stand, except by hanging on to the lectern. He was leaning over it, supporting his weight on it, and still talking to us. We were adjourning at regular intervals because his voice was giving out. I could see from where I was sitting on the Bench that he had kicked his shoes off and was standing there in his socks, just barely able to go on, but still arguing very forcibly.” 

But the gains of these years were not shared equally. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, for instance, still had to battle for basic equality and against the vicious racism of the time. 

In September of 1963 Indigenous activists and their allies had helped persuade the Australian Council of Trade Unions to adopt a policy at our Congress supporting equal pay for Indigenous Workers.

Campaigning for Equal Wages at the ACTU Congress 1963.

In January 1965 the North Australian Workers’ Union lodged an application with the Arbitration Commission to delete the provision of the award covering workers at cattle stations that prevented Indigenous workers from gaining equal rights.

A campaign of public pressure in support of the claim for wage equality was launched across the country. 

The Cattle Producers Council submitted a series of racist arguments to the Commission, degrading the contribution of Indigenous workers to the industry. 

In March 1966 the commission handed down its decision in favour of equal wages – but in a racist insult to Indigenous workers, deferred this equality until December 1968. 

Indigenous pastoral workers took action, demanding equality immediately. 

Dexter Daniels was the Aboriginal Organiser with the North Australian Workers Union. Mr Daniels played an important role in helping Indigenous workers organise themselves to take action.

Mr. Daniels. 

In April of 1966, 80 Indigenous workers at the Newcastle Waters cattle station in the Northern Territory, walked off demanding pay equity immediately. 

Led by Lupna Giari and supported by Mr Daniels it was an important act of defiance, supported by donations from trade unions. 

The North Australian Workers Union banned Mr Daniels from taking further action and extending the strikes. Mr Daniels refused, took leave from the union, and went right on organising. 

In August of 1966 Mr Daniels supported the Gurindji stockmen at the Wave Hill station when they walked off under the leadership of the legendary Vincent Lingiari. 

The Gurindji’s struggle lasted for nine years. Soon, it became clear that while the campaign for equal wages was a major spark for the walk off, it was also more broadly in opposition to racism, and for respect and recognition. 

Respect for their dignity as human beings, and recognition of their status as the traditional owners of the land.

Striking Gurindji workers.

Trade unions played an important role in demonstrating solidarity with the Gurindji. 

The trade unionist Brian Manning, of the Waterside Workers Federation, volunteered on many occasions to drive supplies the 750 kilometres from Darwin to Wattie Creek. 

Mr Daniels and Mr Giari conducted a speaking tour sponsored by the Building Workers Industrial Union and Actors Equity, addressing sixty meetings in just over a month in which they explained their cause. 

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union placed a ban on any products being produced by replacement labour at Wave Hill. 

Other unions held mass meetings, raised collections to support the strikers, and pressured politicians to act. 

The heroic actions of the Gurindji workers is seen as a defining moment in the modern land rights struggle, and in 1975, they won rights over part of their lands. 

A petition presented by the strikers to the Commonwealth Parliament explained: 

“This land belonged to our forefathers from time immemorial, and many of our people have been killed while trying to regain it. Therefore we feel that morally, if not legally, the land is ours and should be returned to us.” 

Unfortunately, as Indigenous Australians know too well, racism towards First Nations peoples endures. The First Nations Workers Alliance continues the struggle against racism and for justice today. You can find out how to get involved at this page. 

Bob Hawke takes the union movement into the new era: 1969 – 1983

In 1969 Bob Hawke was elected as President of the ACTU. It was a changing of the guard as a new generation of unionists came to the fore. 

1969 also proved to be a significant year in the fight for gender equity. In that year the Arbitration Commission heard a case brought by the ACTU on Equal Pay

After decades of campaigning on the principle, in 1969 the Arbitration Commission decided in favour of “equal pay for equal work”. 

While this sounds positive – and it was certainly a step forward – many equal pay activists were disappointed. 

The decision was very limited in scope, applying only to work that men and women performed in the same manner in the same industry, affecting less than 18% of working women (predominantly in the public service). 

This left all those women who worked in female-dominated industries that had been systematically undervalued due to sexism without equality, paid less than men who performed comparable work.

So the campaign continued. 

In October that year, the union activist Zelda D’Aprano chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne to raise awareness of the issue, and demand women be paid equally to men for performing work of equal value.

Zelda D’Aprano taking action for Equal Pay.

Ten days later she was joined by two other union activists and chained herself to the door of the Arbitration Commission to make the point: the time for equality had well and truly arrived.

“Well, I had to go and case the joint and look to see where the handles were on the doors. Then I was able to get the chain donated from the Painters & Dockers Union. And I had to buy the locks myself. And I had it all arranged, and I was very nervous, and the day came and we notified the press and the television stations, and I went ahead and I chained myself across the door of the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne over the injustice done to women over salaries. And I had the women there to give me moral support. And the Commonwealth Police came, and — eventually —cut me off the chains. And so then I just walked back to the union and I had sandwiches there, which I had to eat while I worked, because I’d used up my lunch hour on the chains.”

Zelda D’Aprano

In 1972, the ACTU brought another case before the Arbitration Commission for Equal Pay. This case (supported by the new Whitlam Government), led to a determination in favour of:  “equal pay for work of equal value.” 

It was an important milestone in the continuing march towards gender equity, and a testament to the union women who had campaigned for decades for this recognition.  

This was an exciting time. In New South Wales and Victoria building workers imposed “Green Bans” – refusing to build on sites of environmental and cultural significance. 

In 1970, action by the Building Workers Industrial Union in NSW led to four weeks annual leave becoming standard, allowing for workers to enjoy decent holidays. 

1971 also saw a defiant campaign in the NSW building industry for accident pay, spearheaded by the Building Workers’ Industrial Union and their legendary leader Tom McDonald.

The legendary Building Workers’ Industrial Union leader Tom McDonald speaking at a union conference in 1971.

At this time, injured workers did not receive full pay while they recuperated, but a lesser compensation payment. Unions wanted workers to receive a rate equivalent to their full-time pay. 

After three building workers were injured and denied access to their full pay, the strike began. This wasn’t just about the money, it was about dignity and protection. Injured workers were not to be discarded. 

There were major marches, small-scale worksite actions, and the staffing of pickets on construction sites across the city. A delegation of working women marched to the Master Builders Association’s HQ, chastising its leaders for their disregard towards injured workers. 

Building workers in NSW sustained a general strike for three weeks. The building unions won their claim. Injured workers were to be paid their full wage and treated with the dignity and respect they deserved. 

At this time there was also a substantial push by unions to create superannuation schemes to ensure their members were able to retire in comfort and dignity. Early pioneers included the Waterside Workers Federation which had established its fund in 1967 after a campaign to gain support from employers that stretched back to the 1940s. 

In the 1970s other unions such as the Building workers, Meatworkers, the Pulp and Papermakers, and the Storemen and Packers launched their own campaigns for employer-supported industry-based superannuation funds. Facing fierce resistance, these unions were forced to take industrial action to back up their claims – with the meat workers even being locked out in the course of their struggle. 

But little by little, victories were won, forming the basis for the union push for universal superannuation in the 1980s and early 1990s. One of the most significant milestones in this campaign came in 1984 when the Building Workers’ Industrial Union, under the leadership of Tom McDonald, led an alliance of building unions in the creation of the Building Unions Superannuation Scheme (now CBUS) – a model of industry superannuation taken up by other unions.

An early BUSS promotional poster.

Even while fighting for these substantial reforms, unions continued to act in solidarity with international movements for democracy and equality. At a time when few others in Australia would, the ACTU under Bob Hawke’s leadership came out to condemn the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. 

When the all-white South African Springbok Rugby Team toured Australia in 1971 Hawke declared that it would be boycotted by the Australian union movement for as long as Black South Africans were excluded from the team. 

This was not widely popular at the time. Hawke was even violently threatened for this stance. But it was the right thing to do. As Hawke later recounted: “we had an obligation to act ahead of public opinion, to act as leaders, in the hope that the public would come to understand”. 

The union movement was proven to be on the right side of history. In 1976 a massacre of Black African students in Soweto led the Waterside Workers Federation to ban the shipment of goods to South Africa. 

The ACTU continued to back trade boycotts with Apartheid South Africa and called for anti-Apartheid leader Nelson Mandela to be freed from prison. Soon after his release in 1990, Nelson Mandela visited Australia, and spoke to a meeting of unionists in Melbourne  to thank the movement for its contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle.

Nelson Mandela speaking at a union meeting in Melbourne in 1990.

“It was difficult to understand how workers, thousands of miles from our shores, could take the initiative, the lead, among the workers of the world to pledge their solidarity with the people of South Africa. The feeling that we are not alone, that we have millions of workers behind us is a factor which has propelled us, not withstanding, the most brutal form of oppression which we face in our country.”

Nelson Mandela to the Australian union movement in 1990.”

From 1972 to 1975 the Labor Government of Gough Whitlam worked with unions and instituted much-needed progressive reforms in the realms of education, gender equity, racial discrimination, and industrial relations. 

But Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor General in 1975, and Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister.

Under Fraser’s Coalition government, an inflation explosion left many workers the poorer as their wages fell behind the rising cost of living. Even though Fraser promised that his anti-worker laws would reduce inflation, it actually increased by 10% over the course of his government. 

Fraser also sought to destroy the universal healthcare system established by the Whitlam Government – known then as Medibank – limiting its services to paying customers only. The union movement would have none of it. 

In July 1976, the ACTU organised a national work stoppage to defend Medibank. It was a vital statement about who we are as a county, and what type of society we want to be. Over two million workers were reported to have taken action on the day, an extraordinary and unprecedented national strike action.

Newspaper coverage of the 1976 strike.

Australian unions in the new era of cooperation: 1983 – 1996

In 1983 the Labor Party was elected to federal government with former ACTU-President Bob Hawke as Prime Minister. Hawke’s Government and the ACTU signed an agreement known as the Accord pledging to cooperate for the national good.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and former ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty.

Unions agreed to help overcome the inflation crisis by not pushing for certain wage rises. In return, there would be an increase in the “social wage”, meaning substantial reforms and improvements in healthcare, education, and the welfare system. 

A new social safety net was created with universal healthcare, Medicare, at its heart. When universal healthcare was under attack from Fraser, it was the union movement that defended it when nobody else would. Then, under Hawke, we rebuilt it. This fundamental and transformative reform that has made so many lives better would not exist without the union movement. 

Though many conservative commentators would prefer to forget it, the 1980s was yet another time when the union movement did the heavy lifting to protect and further the national interest. 

These years saw a wide range of reforms that benefitted working people. This included universal superannuation, new welfare payments, training schemes which created skill and employment pathways, an increase in childcare provisions, and new workplace health and safety standards. 

Workplace health and safety had always been important to the union movement, and the ACTU ensured it was an integral component of the Accord. 

In the 1950s and 1960s unions had begun to campaign against the use of asbestos in construction and mining sites, and through the 1970s and early 1980s had successfully written health and safety provisions into employment agreements. 

In 1984 the federal government created the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, confirmed in statute the following year. Alongside the implementation of new laws on the state level, this led to new and more extensive standards to protect workers. Today, the ACTU proudly continues this tradition and is seeking to further health and safety protection, particularly in the area of mental health. Join our campaign

But while the unions made substantial and transformative gains in these years, they were not without their difficulties. Though wealth abounded and the social safety net was greatly strengthened, there were still those employers who wanted their workers to accept less. Even the state sector was not immune to these attitudes.

The economic transformation of this time benefitted many working people, but there were also those who lost out. The elongated recession from 1990 – 1991 was devastating, and the globalisation of the Australian economy saw many industrial sectors displaced. While unions insisted on workers in these areas being supported in the beginning of new careers, this was not always the case. 

From the mid-1980s unions also had to contend with the rise of the “New Right”, an aggressive brand of conservative politics obsessed with undermining union gains and exposing as many areas of Australian life to market forces as possible.

A cartoon depicting the emergence of the New Right.

Peter Costello, later the Treasurer in the Howard government, became a poster-boy of this new aggressive right-wing politics after his successful role as an anti-union lawyer in the Dollar Sweets case of 1985. In this case, Costello sidestepped the arbitration system and successfully brought common law claims against the Confectioners Association. 

For those who detested a system that gave workers a collective voice and some bargaining power, this made Costello a hero. 

In 1986 Costello helped to launch the HR Nicholls society, a right-wing think tank dedicated to popularising the New Right’s anti-union ideas, building especially close connections with the Liberal Party.   

The HR Nicholls Society believed that labour was nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold on the market. They wanted to return to the days before the Harvester judgement of 1907 and the creation of a basic wage. Most of all, they wanted to reduce the influence of unions. This, they systematically set out to do. 

Speaking at a Society event in the early 1990s John Howard acknowledged the “very major contribution to the industrial relations debate” that the Society had made. 

The Accord era of cooperation came to an end in 1996 with the election of the Howard Government. 

Australian unions in the Howard era: 1996 – 2007

The Howard government was addicted to attacking unions. Within its first year it introduced legislation to erode the arbitration arrangements in place, imposed new restrictions on strike action, and pushed workers to negotiate individually with their employers. This dismantled the institutional supports for unions in law and caused union density to decline further. 

Some employers set about using the new laws to attack unions and the wages and conditions of their workforces. In one of the most bitter disputes, the giant mining company Rio Tinto sought to use the new laws in 1997 to push as many workers as possible onto individual contracts at its Hunter Valley mine to sideline the union and the protections it offered. 

This led to six weeks of strike action in the middle of 1997, and even more strike days later in the year.Train drivers refused to cross the picket line, and coal transportation ceased. Community members organised demonstrations in support of the strikers, with rallies held in Newcastle, Singleton, and Sydney. 

Though the unions had some early success in resisting these attacks the new laws gave Rio Tinto the upper hand. The company was able to reduce the number of jobs at the mine and weaken the union. But the union clung on to fight another day. 

Rio Tinto was not the only major corporation to use Howard’s laws with the explicit attempt to undermine union protections within the workplace. BHP soon adopted the same tactic in Western Australia in 1999 and 2000 during the course of an elongated dispute in which it used all of its powers to push workers onto individual contracts. 

The Commonwealth Bank sought to do the exact same thing, offering individual non-union agreements to all of its staff – the largest offer of non-union contracts in Australia’s history to that point. 

The Financial Sector Union was able to resist this attempted de-unionisation, launching a strike action that closed down two-thirds of all Commonwealth Bank branches across Australia. Eventually, the Commonwealth Bank withdrew its attempts to de-unionise and its workers won a long overdue pay rise.

Howard’s anti-unionism was most famously symbolised by the 1998 Maritime Dispute

The Patrick Corporation, backed by the Federal Government, sacked its highly-unionised workforce and tried to replace them with workers who were not members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). Watch a short documentary on the dispute here

Security guards wearing balaclavas accompanied by barely-restrained attack dogs appeared on the wharfs of Australia. On the other side of the fence were the maritime workers who just wanted to go to work, earn a decent wage, and be able to depend upon their union for protection. 

Led by the legendary John Coombs, the MUA sprang into action, organising community pickets and launching a legal challenge alongside the ACTU. The response in support of the wharfies was emphatic. Across the country unionists from a variety of trades and industries joined the community picket lines.

MUA members taking action in 1998.

Union after union leant their support, both in personnel, and financially. Union members and community supporters popularised the chant across the country: “MUA: here to stay!” 

Eventually, public opinion put pressure on Patrick’s and a court decision meant the MUA members returned to work. The MUA had not been defeated. 

Though it was a huge moral victory for the union movement it was clear that some employers and the Howard Government were on a crusade to attack workers and weaken their bargaining position at any opportunity. 

It was a difficult time, but these years also demonstrated the vital significance of unions to workers, and also to the broader struggle for social justice. 

One of the clearest examples came in 1999, when the people of East Timor bravely voted for independence from Indonesian military domination. Immense violence was unleashed on East Timor by Indonesian military-backed militias. The Australian union movement sprung into action to show solidarity with the people of East Timor, and to call for Australian peace keepers to enter the country.

A protest to support the people of East Timor (now Timor-Leste)

This included regular protests at airports of the Garuda airline – owned by the Indonesian government. In September 1999 Victorian unionists went to the Melbourne airport and protested a Garuda plane that was about to depart. 

Members of the Australian Services Union on the flight crew and the Transport Workers Union who organised the baggage refused to handle freight on Garuda. 

In Sydney, thousands of union-led protestors brought the airport to a standstill. It sent a clear message: Australian unions would not stand idly by while the people of East Timor were being targeted by violence. 

The protests didn’t stop until the Australian Government announced that it would send peacekeepers, and the Indonesian Government agreed to allow these peacekeepers into Timor. 

It was unions doing what we do best: bringing working people together to have a voice. Union members used this voice to campaign for social justice. Despite this, the Howard Government continued to present unionists as “thugs” and to attack our rights at work.

What other “thuggish” things were unions doing at this time? When Ansett Airline collapsed unions launched a campaign to ensure its workers were paid the entitlements they were owed after years of service. 

Unions campaigned with sufferers of asbestosis such as Bernie Banton to get justice and compensation. In 2001 unions helped secure maternity leave for workers on casual contracts. 

At the 2004 election the Howard Government was returned to office with a majority in the Senate. It used this power to introduce the “Work Choices” legislation aiming to promote individual workplace agreements and to further restrict unions. 

The union movement recognised this for what it was: an attempt to erode all the protections won in the past century and expose working people to the whims of the market. The ACTU and its affiliated unions launched a massive community campaign, “Your Rights at Work”, to insist that working people deserved better.

Unionists rally for their rights at work.

It struck a chord. Hundreds of thousands marched at major demonstrations. Activists and volunteers established community groups in marginal electorates and campaigned against the Howard Government’s attacks.

At the 2007 election the government was defeated. So fierce was the backlash against Howard’s attacks on workers that he even lost his own seat. Despite eleven years of government-mandated union bashing, belief in the fair go endured.

Winning for workers in the toughest of times: challenges for unions since 2007

he Australian union movement was relieved to put the outright aggression of the Howard years behind us, but we were under no illusions: there were major challenges ahead. 

It is no secret that in recent decades that inequality has grown and the distribution of wealth has become wildly unbalanced – internationally, and here in Australia. 

The union movement has a long and proud record of campaigning against all forms of inequality, and correcting the massive power imbalance that emerged through the Howard years was always going to be a major priority for working people in their unions. 

We knew this would be a tough ask, but we had no idea how tough some of the challenges would be! Howard was not long out of the Lodge before the outbreak of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, one of the most significant challenges to jobs and living standards in our modern history. 

Under the new Labor Government, there were some important changes for working people. Most notably, the new Fair Work Act wound back some of the worst aspects of Howard’s anti-worker Work Choices legislation. But unfortunately it retained a large number of the structural impediments to collective representation and bargaining that had been instituted in previous years. 

So working within an unbalanced system, workers continued to come together and find new ways to take action through their unions, and to win. 

In 2010, following a successful stated-based case in Queensland that led to a pay increase for community sector workers, the Australian Services Union (ASU) set out to correct the injustice of unequal pay

Community sector work had been traditionally viewed as “women’s work” leading to a chronic and sexist underpayment of workers in this industry. 

But the new Equal Renumeration Laws that were part of the Fair Work Act provided the opportunity to lodge a test case with Fair Work to correct this injustice. 

The ASU and other unions, supported by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, launched a community campaign in which community sector workers sought to win public opinion to their side. 

It was courageous, creative, and extraordinarily effective.

Community sector workers campaigning for equal pay.

The campaign educated the public as to the realities of the sector and put a human face on unionism. 

It included major rallies, coordinated dance routines, and even union flash mobs out the front of state parliaments to capture public attention. 

This public pressure ensured the Federal Labor Government joined the claim, and it helped to build an overwhelming case for equal pay. 

A decision by the Fair Work Commission was handed down on 1 February 2012, and over 200,000 workers benefited as a result. 

Watch the Australian Services Union’s history of the campaign video here

But while workers were finding new ways to win, our opponents were just as dedicated as ever to attacking unions and trying to silence the collective voice of workers. 

In 2013, the Abbott Coalition Government was elected, and a new era of union bashing by an ideologically obsessed government began. 

This included Abbott’s institution of a Royal Commission into the union movement –  a move that was accompanied by a proposed horror budget that was a full-on attack on many of the most vulnerable in our society. Unions urgently organised public opinion to oppose this assault. 

Though Australia’s sense of the fair go prevailed and we soon saw the end of Abbott’s Prime Ministership, the Coalition’s addiction to attacking unions continued under Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. 

The next step in this attack was the creation of the Registered Organisation Commission in 2017, an investigative body that has been embroiled in scandal for its politicised policing of unions.  

This includes its obsessive investigation into a donation from the Australian Workers Union (AWU) to Get Up in 2006, an investigation judged to be “invalid” and “flawed” by the Federal Court

Serious questions were raised about the Commission’s activities after the media were tipped off about a raid on the AWU’s headquarters – the tip off originated in the office of Michaelia Cash, then the Minister for Employment in the Coalition government. Cash obstinately avoided answering significant questions about the raids, and even refused to give a witness statement to the Australian Federal Police.  

But this wasn’t the end of the obsession. The Morrison Government frequently attempted to introduce new laws to undermine unions and diminish the rights and conditions of workers. 

These attacks went by a number of different names, like “Ensuring Integrity” and the “Omnibus Bill” (Omnibus means lots of proposed laws brought together in one bill). But they had two things in common: they were aimed at attacking workers and their unions, and workers took action to defeat them! 

What have we been doing in recent years that the government has been so desperate to stop? 

A major union campaign in this period has been for Paid Domestic and Family Violence Leave. Domestic violence is a brutal reality being faced by too many Australian women. 800,000 women will experience family or domestic violence this year. A woman dies every week in Australia because of family and domestic violence.

From the union campaign for Paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave

To escape a violent relationship you have to take time off work. Many of the services that support women and their children are only available during business hours. Without paid leave, people experiencing violence simply don’t have time or resources to find a new, safe, place. 

Unions understand this vital imperative – and have made history by making change. 

In September 2010, the first ever enterprise bargaining agreement clause allowing for 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave was successfully negotiated by the Australian Services Union with the Surf Coast Shire. 

This was a truly historic event, and an integral moment in the campaign to win Paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave for all workers. 

An ASU Delegate at the Shire helped negotiate this clause. This Delegate raised the significance of this issue with the union when it came to planning for a new agreement, and the union made it clear to the Shire’s Human Resources team that it wanted a paid family and domestic violence leave clause in the EBA.

Reportedly, the union team was initially rebuffed. But the union members at the workplace refused to give up. And the Surf Coast Shire came to accept the demand. 

This workplace organising acted as a spur to the subsequent union campaign to include Paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave clauses in other agreements, and to win a minimum of 10 days paid leave as a new general standard by having it included in the National Employment Standards. 

In 2012 the ACTU’s Women’s Committee developed a policy on family and domestic violence leave that was endorsed by the ACTU Congress that year. 

This has led to family and domestic violence leave clauses being included in bargaining claims by many unions, with this action by unionists in their workplaces leading to 1 in 3 employers offering paid leave to their employees. 

Though unions found little support from the Morrison Government, we continued to keep up the campaign, winning a number of important victories. This resulted in really significant advances in 2022. In May of that year the long union campaign led to the Fair Work Commission ruling that 2.66 million workers covered by modern awards should have access to 10 days paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave. Soon after, the new Labor Government introduced a Bill to include paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave in the National Employment Standards. 

These were truly historic advances for women workers and all those who experience Family and Domestic Violence that would not be possible without the action taken by union members through their unions.

Unionists campaigning in Canberra for Paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave.

Unions and the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was a truly traumatic experience. Though many of us were forced to be apart, union members were never alone. 

Unions have faced economic crises before. 

Unions have dealt with major health crises before. 

Unions have campaigned against attacks on our ability to organise before. 

But with COVID-19, we had to do all of these at once. 

But the thing about union members – working people who come together and stick together – is that whatever challenges we face, we face them together. This is the source of our strength – this is the lived expression of our solidarity. 

Once the pandemic was unleashed unions sprung into action. In workplace after workplace – whether working on site or at home – unions took action to protect the health and safety of their members. In some industries, such as the Aviation industry, unions such as the Flight Attendants Association of Australia took new and unprecedented action to ensure their members found secure employment while the planes were grounded, working alongside other unions such as the CPSU. 

ACTU Secretary Sally McManus as part of the campaign for paid pandemic leave.

In workplace after workplace, industry after industry, unions campaigned for better protection for all workers. Union members in factories, warehouses, distribution centres, laundries, and other workplaces took action together when their employers were not treating their health and safety with enough care. 

In a series of industries this led to the winning of paid pandemic leave – even against the initial opposition of the Morrison Government to a government-led scheme. 

Unions were vital to the big national policies that made sure Australia got through the early stages of the pandemic. The ACTU ran a powerful campaign for a wage subsidy that would ensure that workers whose duties were interrupted by the pandemic would not be laid off – but instead would receive support and remain connected to their workplace. 

The Morrison Government initially insisted there would be no subsidy – but the strength of the union claim and the support we received from the general public made sure that Morrison had to back down. This became JobKeeper. 

Winning this historic subsidy was a massive accomplishment, but we didn’t stop there. Where there were deficiencies with the system, unions campaigned to correct them: fighting for support for workers in the university sector, the tourism sector, and many others. When major big businesses were given handouts that weren’t flowing back to workers, we kicked up a stink. Just ask Harvey Norman which sought to keep its JobKeeper subsidy even after racking up massive profits! 

Unions also successfully campaigned for the JobSeeker subsidy to be created, providing meaningful support for the unemployed, and we campaigned for paid pandemic leave for all workers. We pushed for the Government to procure and distribute free Rapid Antigen Tests to essential workers and the broader community

And at every stage we forcefully argued that pandemic-policy should be made in reference to the work of medical experts. We insisted that the voices of workers needed to be heard when shaping the response to the pandemic. 

Just imagine how much worse the pandemic would have been than it already was without unions taking this action.

Workers in their unions campaigning for secure work.

History doesn’t happen – it is made

COVID-19 did not create the divisions and inequities of Australian society – it laid them bare for all to see.

For decades, large business lobbies and right-wing politicians have pursued an aggressive anti-union agenda. They have been dedicated to taking Australia back to the past, when the bosses had all the power, and workers were seen as little more than commodities. 

Attacks on the representative voices of working people – their unions – has led to more inequality, less secure work, stagnating wages, and made it so much harder for working people to stand up against bullying, harassment, and unfair treatment. It is tough out there for working people. 

But unionists did not give up just because the odds were against us. 

Union members never give up the struggle for a fairer and more just society. And it is this struggle that makes history. 

In 2022, unionists made history at the Federal Election. Union members in workplaces all across Australia signed up in droves to be part of the campaign to win a better working future. Union members came together and inspired each other – then we went out into our workplaces and our communities to have the vital conversations about why we needed a change in Government as the next step to winning better working rights. 

We helped make Scott Morrison’s Prime Ministership history.

Unionists making a difference in the 2022 election.

In the wake of this victory ACTU Secretary Sally McManus wrote a very special message to union members in which she said: 

‘Union members have stood up for each other for more than a century. And we’ll be doing the same for generations to come. 

The Australian union movement has always treated workers as people first, not commodities to be bought and sold. 

That’s why union members stand together for better workplace conditions and protecting workers’ rights. 


Unionists don’t just talk. We act. 

On 15 June 2022, the enduring need for the union movement as the representative voice of working people was shown as clearly as it ever has been. 

Since the introduction of the minimum wage, it has always been the union movement that has advocated for a liveable minimum that allows working people to enjoy decent lives. In 2022 the ACTU made a powerful argument on behalf of the entire movement for an increase in the minimum wage to allow those workers who had given so much to get us through the pandemic years to at least meet the basic rise in the cost of living.

This argument led to the Fair Work Commission handing down a historic wage increase: 5.2 per cent for those on the minimum wage and 4.6 per cent or $40 per week for those reliant on award wages. 

This increase did not come without opposition. Instantly, powerful voices from big business and the right-wing media condemned unions for standing up for working people. For unions, this is nothing new. Every major change working people have won through their unions has been condemned by our opponents. 

Stretching back to the British invasion of Australia, there have been two traditions in Australia. 

The first is the tradition of the establishment, the elite, the conservatives. Those who look at growing inequality and see not the social cost, but the profit that they can make. Those who see injustice and consider it the natural state of affairs. Those who want to keep the rest of us in our place – who see us not as human beings, but as expendable units of labour. This is the tradition of our opponents. 

And then there is the second tradition – the tradition of resistance and transformative change, the tradition that the union movement belongs to with all our soul, and proudly continues today. 

From the Indigenous resistors, to the convict mutineers, to the rebels at Eureka, this tradition was forged by those who saw injustice and sought to correct it. 

In the 1830s it began to be given institutional form in the workers’ societies, and from the 1850s, the union movement itself. From then until today successive generations have fought to make Australia a more decent and equitable place. 

We remember them, and we venerate them, for they are our ancestors, our comrades, our union family. We learn from them, and we bring their tradition of progressive struggle into the century that stretches before us. 

The eight-hour day, the minimum wage, equal pay, holidays, health and safety, superannuation, universal healthcare: none of these came easily. Each required a fight, often over the course of decades, and each one of these reforms was only realised against the fierce resistance of the conservatives who told us such change was impossible, irresponsible, and would bankrupt our society. 

But we knew that society doesn’t exist on spreadsheets and its progress isn’t measured by profit ratings or shareholder reports. We know that workers are more than the jobs we do: we are human beings and we deserve decent and dignified lives. 

What they told us was impossible, irresponsible, unaffordable, has been woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and made our society a better place. 

Because this is what we do – this is what unions are for. We stick together, and we make the change that has made Australia the country of the fair go. 

This is why the conservatives are so desperate to attack us, with their slander, and their restrictive laws. 

Because they believe that not a single day will go by that the union movement is not out there, with everything we have, resisting their agenda, sticking up for each other, and fighting against growing inequality. 

And they’re right. 

Will you be part of our movement’s story?

Better wages, better conditions, a fairer society. If you believe in these things, join your union today

The union movement is proud of our past, but we are working to build a better future. In recent years wages have fallen behind the rising cost of living while corporate bonuses increase year after year. This isn’t an accident, it is the result of policies designed to reduce union influence to benefit the bosses.

Our opponents have learnt the lessons of history: strong unions get in the way of exploitation and inequality.

We must learn the lessons of history as well. Together, we are stronger. Together, we can get a better deal. Together, we can take action to make Australia a fairer and more just place. We know we can do it, because this is what the generations before us have done. 

The rest is up to us. Help make history.

Timeline – What have unions ever done for me?

Pay rises, weekends, holidays, and a safe working environment – these haven’t come from nowhere, they were fought for and won by unions. Decent wages, safe conditions, and the right to a life outside of work – this is what unions have done for you, and what we will keep on doing. But we need you to help us. Join your union. 

Here are just some of the many key victories unions have won for working people in Australia: 


Building workers in Melbourne and Sydney win the eight-hour day. Previously, it was expected that builders would work at least ten hours a day. Subsequent union campaigns replicated those achievement in other industries.


A strike of women clothing workers led to the establishment of the first union of women in Australia, the Tailoresses Union.

1890 – 1894

Successive strikes in the maritime, mining, and shearing industries demonstrate the ferocity of the employers’ anti-unionism. In this all-out class warfare, the close alliance of governments and employers prove to unions that they too need to organise together to take political action.


Following union agitation over work rates and conditions Victoria establishes the world’s first compulsory legal minimum wage.


A union campaign leads to equal pay for women working in the newly-established Commonwealth Public Service as telegraphists and “postmistresses.”


The Sunshine Harvester Factory case in the Arbitration Court led to the “basic wage” decision to create a minimum wage at a rate that a worker could afford to live on.


Unions were successful in persuading the Arbitration Court that pay rises should be indexed to the cost of living, so that wages wouldn’t decline against the rising costs of necessities.


After union campaigns that won the 44-hour week in a variety of industries in the preceding two decades, the Arbitration Court standardises the working week at 44 hours.


Union advocacy leads to one week of annual leave being introduced. Sick leave was also first introduced this year.


A union case leads to two-weeks paid leave being granted in in the metal industries.


The forty-hour week takes effect as a general standard across most industries: the modern weekend.


Union advocacy leads to the introduction of long service leave.


A union campaign leads to 3 weeks of annual leave becoming standard.


After a long union backed campaign by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unionists and community activists the Arbitration Commission decides in favour of equal pay for Indigenous      workers (though this was delayed in implementation until 1968).


An ACTU-backed Equal Pay case leads to “equal pay for equal work” between women and men engaged in the same type of work.


Union agitation leads to four weeks of paid annual leave.


The ACTU launched an additional case before the Arbitration Commission on equal pay. It resulted in the historic ruling in favour of “equal pay for work of equal value”.


A union campaign leads to the first formal provision of paid maternity leave in the public service, providing for 12 weeks of paid leave.


Two million workers undertake an ACTU-organised general strike to defend the system of universal healthcare.


After the ACTU launched a test case the Industrial Relations Commission granted 12 months unpaid maternity leave to all permanent workers.


An Agreement signed with the ACTU known as the Accord led to the Hawke Labor Government introducing the modern system of universal healthcare, Medicare, allowing all Australians to have access to health provision no matter their personal wealth.


The Accord leads to the creation of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, made into a statutory body the following year, to create new health and safety standards to  protect workers on the job.


A union-initiated test case results in substantial new protections for workers in employment termination and redundancies, particularly as a result of technological change.


A union test case leads to the introduction of adoption leave.


The ACTU successfully took a case to the Industrial Relations Commission for parental leave rights.


Universal superannuation is introduced to ensure a decent and dignified retirement for all working people.


An ACTU case to the Industrial Relations Commission achieved paid leave entitlements for workers to care for family members.


Maternity and carers leave is introduced for casual workers after a union campaign.


A long trade union campaign forces the asbestos-company James Hardy to create a compensation fund for its workers worth $293million.


After the Hardie compensation fund runs out the company refuses to allocate more money. A union campaign begins spearheaded by the worker advocate and asbestos activist Bernie Banton in close cooperation with the ACTU. In 2005, as a result of this campaign, James Hardie put aside $4.5billion for asbestos sufferers. In 2007 a further compensation deal worth $4billion was agreed to.


After a three-year campaign against the Howard government’s anti-union “Work Choices” legislation, the ACTU and the broader union movement successfully defeat the Coalition at the polls. Howard becomes just the second sitting prime minister in Australia’s history to lose his seat at an election.


The Australian Services Union’s equal pay campaign culminates in a ruling by the Fair Work Commission granting equal pay to community sector workers in a significant victory for gender  equity.


The ACTU wins its claim at the Fair Work Commission for casuals to have the right to request transfer to a permanent position after twelve months work.


An ACTU case leads the Fair Work Commission to institute five days unpaid leave for workers experiencing family and domestic violence. The ACTU’s campaign to extend this to ten days paid leave continues.


A union campaign leads to the introduction of JobKeeper.


Unions win greater support for the unemployed: JobSeeker.


Unions win our long campaign to introduce 10 days paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave.


A union claim to the Fair Work Commission leads to an historic increase in the minimum wage.

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