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Australian labour movement

Australian labour movement
National trade union organization(s)
National government agency(ies)
Fair Work Australia
Primary trade union legislation
Fair Work Act 2009

International Labour Organization

Australia is a member of the ILO

Convention ratification
Freedom of Association 28 February 1973
Right to Organise 28 February 1973

The Australian labour movement has its origins in the early 19th century and includes both trade unions and political activity. At its broadest, the movement can be defined as encompassing the industrial wing (Australian unions) and the political wing (Australian Labor Party (ALP) and minor parties).

Almost all unions in Australia are affiliated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). These unions are commonly the product of a significant process of amalgamation undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


  • Early history 1
    • Trades Halls 1.1
    • 1890s Great Strikes 1.2
    • Friendly Societies 1.3
    • Trade Union Banners 1.4
  • Growth of the trade and industrial unions 2
  • Governments 3
  • The Labour Movement and World War I 4
  • The labour movement in the 1920s 5
  • Depression and attacks on unions 6
  • Second World War and after 7
  • Industrial Relations changes in 2005 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10

Early history

Eight-hour day banner, Melbourne, 1856
University of Melbourne site where Stonemasons won the 8 hour day in 1856

Workers who were sent to Australia initially came from England under what was called penal transportation that is as prisoners under the condition of slavery. Workers were also brought from neighbouring islands and from local areas under similar conditions. The abolition of slavery across the former British Empire affected Australia too.

Craft unions in Australia began in the early 19th century as craft associations of highly skilled urban workers who sought to combine (form a labour union), to increase their wages and lower their hours.

Conditions of the time were governed by the Master and Servant Act. Employees in Australia in 1840 who left their employment without permission were subject to being hunted down under the Bushrangers Act. As little as one hour’s absence by a free servant without permission could precipitate a punishment of prison or the treadmill. In the Melbourne jurisdiction, in the years 1835 to 1845, when labour shortages were acute, over 20% of prison inmates were convicted under the New South Wales Master and Servant Act for offences including leaving place of work without permission and being found in hotels.

On 18 August 1855 the Stonemasons Society in Sydney issued an ultimatum to employers that in six months time, masons would only work an eight-hour day. However men working on the Holy Trinity Church (Garrison Church) in Argyle Cut, and on the Mariners Church, (an evangelical mission to seafarers, now an art gallery and café) in Lower George Street (98-100 George Street), could not contain their enthusiasm and decided not to wait. They pre-emptively went on strike, won the eight-hour day, and celebrated with a victory dinner on 1 October 1855.

On 21 April 1856 Stonemasons and building workers on building sites around

  • Mutual Aid or Welfare State. Australia's Friendly Societies, David Green & Lawrence Cromwell (1984) ISBN 0-86861-664-8
  • Industrial War. The Great Strikes 1890-94, Stuart Svenson (1995) ISBN 0-646-22797-1
  • Sydney's Burning (An Australian Political Conspiracy), Ian Turner (1969)
  • A Documentary History of the Australian Labor Movement 1850-1975, Brian McKinley, (1979) ISBN 0-909081-29-8
  • Strikes. Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History, Ed by John Iremonger, Merritt, Osborne. Angus and Robertson in association with ASSLH (1973) ISBN 0-207-12698-4
  • My Union Right or Wrong. A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932, Issy Wyner (2003). Accessed 1 May 2005


  1. ^  
  2. ^ Reconciliation in the Community - How do we make it a reality? - Speech by Jennie George, ACTU President, in 1997
  3. ^ "Rights at Work Media Release". 2005-11-15. Retrieved 2014-07-14. 
  4. ^ In an article of The Australian, 23 May 2009


International Labour Organization, particularly in regards to ILO Conventions 87 and 98.

Following the defeat of the Howard Liberal government at the 2007 federal election, the Rudd Labor government moved quickly to outlaw Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) amongst other changes.

The Bill was passed by the Senate, with minor amendments, by a vote of 35-33 on 2 December 2005 and received the Royal Assent on 14 December.

On 15 November 2005, the ACTU organised a national day of protest, during which the ACTU estimated 546,000 people took part in marches and protests in Australia's state capitals and other cities.[3] The rallies were addressed by State premiers and religious leaders. Other notable Australians, including former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, also spoke in opposition to the industrial relations changes. John Howard said that the protests will not change his policy and employer groups estimated that 95% of the workforce did not attend.

On 30 June 2005 up to 100,000 people marched through Melbourne in opposition to the proposed industrial relations changes, with meetings also held in capital cities and regional towns around Australia.

After the Howard Liberal Government's International Labour Organization, of which Australia is a member.

A view of the rally in La Trobe Street, Melbourne, giving an indication of the size of the crowd

Industrial Relations changes in 2005

The last quarter of the 20th century has seen the proportion of employees in the workforce belonging to a union falling from 51 per cent in 1976 to about 23 per cent in 2005.

With the 1996 election of the Federal Government under Prime Minister John Howard increasing pressure was brought to bear on industrial relations reforms to reduce the industrial power of Australian trade unions. This has included the introduction of Australian Workplace Agreements — individual contractual agreements on pay and conditions between an employee and employer — and the reduction of minimum conditions contained in Industrial awards. One of the first targets of the conservative Government was to undermine the power of the Maritime Union of Australia, through breaking its closed shop on waterfront labour. The 1998 Australian waterfront dispute resulted with stevedoring firm, Patrick Corporation under CEO Chris Corrigan, attempting to sack its entire waterfront workforce of 1400 people through company restructuring. The Australian Council of Trade Unions condemned the sacking as a gross act of collusion between Patrick, the Government, and the National Farmers Federation, and with the threat of legal action against the Government and Patrick Corporation, a settlement was negotiated to allow some reform with the MUA retaining its effective closed shop.

In the late 1980s Australia experienced a push for microeconomic reform encompassing deregulation of a number of previously regulated markets, including the labour market. This was first pursued by the Keating Government in 1991, through the Enterprise Bargaining Agreements introduced into Australia under the Prices and Incomes Accord in 1991 (Mark VII). They later became the centrepiece of the Australian industrial relations system when the Accord was next revised in 1993 (Mark VIII). This ended nearly a century of centralised wage-fixing based industrial relations.

The militant wave was broken by the National Farmers Federation successfully backed legal sanctions to defeat union industrial action. The 1989 Australian pilots' strike saw the Federal Labor Government using RAAF planes and pilots to break industrial action by the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, taken outside the Prices and Incomes Accord.

During the 1960s a number of militant unions became locked in contests with governments and employers. Governments relied on penal powers to keep union activists in line. The general strike over Clarrie O'Shea's imprisonment broke the government law and ushered in a period of rising union demands. These demands existed in a context of a general social radicalisation under Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.

The post war years saw the Australian labour movement support Indigenous Australians in their fight for human rights, cultural rights and native title, through supporting the 1946 Pilbara strike, The Gurindji Strike at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory, equal pay for aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and support for the Noonkanbah people in their land rights dispute with the Western Australian Government over mining companies disturbing sacred sites.[2]

The 1950s and 1960s period was generally one of industrial peace, dictated by preference agreements and closed shops. This period saw union membership keep pace with the growth of the workforce.

The second world war created a significant feeling of sympathy for the National Civic Council (or Groupers) started setting up of Industrial Groups within unions to counter the influence of communists.

Second World War and after

In response to the depression the remains of the IWW set up a union for the unemployed. This idea was quickly taken up by both the Newtown, Bankstown, Newcastle and Wollongong. The unemployed movements did not win significant employment, payment or condition victories for the unemployed workers. No future union of the unemployed would ever match the achievements of the unemployed unions of the 1930s.

The trade union response to unemployment was not inspiring. Before the Depression some strong trade unions would provide welfare for unemployed members, and seek jobs for them. The depression rendered this system useless where it existed at all. (Union welfare primarily existed in seasonal work with militant unions, like dock-working. It was precisely these unions that were attacked by the dog-collar act).

A fifteen-month lockout during 1929–1930 of miners on the Northern New South Wales Coalfields was particularly bitter. The Rothbury Riot resulted in police shooting at miners, killing Norman Brown and seriously injuring many more.

The 1929 Timber Workers strike was the first large strike after the onset of the Great Depression when Justice Lukin handed down a new timber industry award that increased the working week from 44 to 48 hours and reduced wages. During the strike Lukin ordered a secret ballot to be held which was the first attempt to enforce a secret ballot in an industrial dispute.

The dog-collar act was used to break up strong unions, in forestry and in dock-working. These unions were perceived to be revolutionary, or at least militant. At the same time the fragmented trade unions sought to maintain member conditions in an environment of massive unemployment. For instance, rates of male unemployment in the industrial city of Newcastle never dropped below 20% throughout the 1920s. When the depression hit, formal unemployment rates rose above 30%.

After the Transport Workers Act 1928 (more widely known as The Dog Collar Act) was passed, the Australian union movement sought to protect itself by forming the Australian Council of Trade Unions. By this point the idea of trade unionism had won out over industrial unionism. This was in part encouraged by the Industrial courts who freely gave registration to small, shop and trade specific unions. While the Communist Party of Australia would always argue for industrial unions, the idea of industrial unions mouldered until the 1960s, and only received support from the ACTU and ALP in the 1980s.

Depression and attacks on unions

Trade union movement membership reached its peak in 1927, according to Green and Cromwell, when trade union membership "comprised less than 15 per cent of the whole population, only 47 per cent of the workforce."

Strikes in this period were commonplace, and remained threatening to the Commonwealth government until 1928 and the passage of the Dog-collar act against the Waterside Workers Federation. Of particular note is the 1923 Victorian Police strike.

The Communist Party of Australia was formed in October 1920 by a group of Trades Hall radicals that included Jock Garden, the members of the illegal IWW, and members of earlier socialist organisations in Australia.

The labour movement in the 1920s

At the end of the first world war in Australia there were a number of major industrial and political actions which threatened the stability of society. In Queensland counter-revolutionary and racist riots broke out in the Red Flag Riots, when it was made illegal to fly or wear the red flag, except as a sign of danger. The New South Wales General Strike of 1917 started on 2 August 1917, by railway workers over the introduction of the Taylor system of determining where work could be speeded-up. It was the most widespread labour upheaval since the 1890s, and ended when mining workers returned to work on 15 October 1917.

The Unlawful Associations Act (1916) was rushed through Federal Parliament in late December and the IWW was declared an illegal organisation. The IWW simply changed its name to Workers' Defence and Release Committee, and continued as normal. In late July 1917 the Act was amended resulting in any organisation or individual able to be easily proscribed. In return the IWW ran a 'free speech movement' campaign in which over 80 members in Sydney were sentenced to 6 months hard labour (the maximum) for simply proclaiming their membership, which was enough to scare many others away from open defiance. Those not born in Australia were subsequently deported at the end of their sentences, mostly to Chile. A chain of international protests about the Sydney Twelve IWW prisoners followed. (Sydney's Burning (An Australian Political Conspiracy))

On 23 September 1916 twelve members of the IWW (most of them active organisers) were arrested and charged with treason under the Treason Felony Act (1848). As four buildings had been deliberately damaged by fire, the charge of arson was added to the charges. They became known as the Sydney Twelve with many unions and people in the labour movement actively campaigning for their release for several years.

The Labor Governments of Hughes in the Federal sphere, and William Holman in New South Wales, were held in low regard by much of the labour movement due to their policies on military conscription.

The chief proponent of industrial unionism in Australia was the Industrial Workers of the World, which actively sought out conflicts with management. The IWW also acted on a political plane, opposing boyhood conscription, then the first world war. The Australian labour movement united around opposition to conscription, largely due to vocal opposition by the IWW and Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix. Two referendum proposals to introduce conscription by Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes were defeated, making Australia and South Africa the only nations at war during the First World War not to introduce conscription.

Federal Labour Party MPs elected at the inaugural 1901 election, including Chris Watson, Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes, Frank Tudor, and King O'Malley.

The Labour Movement and World War I

Labour candidates emerged in the late 19th century with much success, being a part of informal coalition governments from the early 1890s. The first Labour government in the world came in 1899 through Anderson Dawson, and the first national Labour government in the world in 1904 through Chris Watson. Then came the first national Labour majority government in the world, the first national majority government in Australia, and the first Senate majority in Australia, in 1910 through Andrew Fisher. The state branches formed their first majority governments in New South Wales and South Australia in 1910, in Western Australia in 1911, and in Queensland in 1915. Such success eluded equivalent social democratic and labour parties in other countries for many years. The 113 acts passed in the three years of the federal Fisher government was unprecedented, a period of reform unmatched in the Commonwealth up until that point. The government carried out many reforms in defence, constitutional matters, finance, transport and communications, and social security, such as establishing old-age and disability pensions, a maternity allowance and workers compensation, issuing Australia's first paper currency, forming the Royal Australian Navy, the commencement of construction for the Trans-Australian Railway, expanding the bench of the High Court of Australia, founding Canberra and establishing the government-owned Commonwealth Bank.


At the time there was no real conflict or division between the trade and industrial union mentality. Many supporters of the ALP in the Trades and Labour Councils were radical, militant and supported socialism. Both ideas of unionism shared the idea of organising the unskilled to win against the bosses.

Industrial unionism went one step further, claiming that all workers on one worksite, diggers, plasterers, engine drivers, cleaners, caterers, engineers, accountants and clerks should belong to one union, as part of a "construction industry." Industrial unionists sought to organise all workers into One Big Union which could then conduct a strike across the entire society and peacefully usher in socialism. The 1912 Brisbane General Strike showed the combined power of the labour movement, effectively operating as an alternative social administration for five weeks, undermining the power of the conservative government.

In part this was caused by two new ideas of unionism: trade unionism and industrial unionism. Trade unionists sought to organise all people engaged in the same trade on job sites. Rather than simply organising the ditch diggers into one craft union and the dirt movers into another craft union, trade unionists sought to organise all people who moved earth into one union.

The threats of wild cat industrial action on a national level convinced the Federal Parliament to adopt a system of compulsory registration of unions, and compulsory arbitration in disputes. The Conciliation and Arbitration Act was assented to in 1904, and dictated the terrain of industrial relations conflicts and unionism until the 1990s.

At the beginning of the 20th century the union movement was in disarray across Australia. Only a few tough craft unions had survived. The majority of workers were un-unionised. A variety of skilled organisers turned this around, and achieved remarkably high union membership density rates by 1914.

Federated Society of Boilermakers Iron & Steel Shipbuilders of Australia Banner a928322

Growth of the trade and industrial unions

The reverse of the banner shows the warship "Australia" at sea. The banner is canvas and was painted by Sydney firm Althouse & Geiger, master painters and decorators. Founded in 1875, the company is still in operation. The banner is a powerful interpretive tool in communicating the experience and the history of the Australian labour movement.

The banner features a kneeling figure in the centre surrounded by scroll work and is decorated with Australian native flowers and images representative of the work of the Union’s members such as a New South Wales Government Railways 34 class steam locomotive, the Hawkesbury River rail bridge built in 1889, and a furnace.

The State Library of NSW has a small collection of trade union banners that were donated to the Library in the early 1970s such as this photograph of a Federated Society of Boilermakers, Iron & Steel Shipbuilders of Australia banner thought to have been made c. 1913-1919. The Federated Society of Boilermakers, Iron & Steel Shipbuilders of Australia was formed in 1873 and joined the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union in 1972.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, trade union banners were unfurled with pride in annual Eight Hour Day marches which advocated ‘Eight Hours Labour, Eight Hours Recreation and Eight Hours Rest’. These marches were one of the most prominent annual celebrations staged in Australia by any group. In Sydney alone, by the early twentieth century, thousands of unionists representing up to seventy different unions would take part in such parades, marching behind the banner emblematic of their trade. Most of these banners have not survived; the Labour Council of NSW has the largest surviving collection at Sydney Trades Hall in Sussex Street, Sydney.

Federated Society of Boilermakers, Iron & Steel Shipbuilders of Australia, Union Banner A928321h

Trade Union Banners

The early labour movement was much broader than trade unions. As there was no social welfare, many workers and their families were members of a Friendly society to insure against sickness, accident or unemployment. In fact, Unions had a far smaller membership than did Friendly Societies in Australia, according to Green and Cromwell. They explain that "At the turn of the (twentieth) century, when the friendly societies were serving well over 30 per cent of the population, fewer than one worker in ten (2.5 per cent of the total population) was a trade union member." (Mutual Aid or Welfare State. Australia's Friendly Societies). Reports of community events and labour processions regularly detailed the active participation of trade societies and friendly societies. Friendly societies were an important part of the Labour movement, but their contribution has mostly been ignored by Labour Historians, according to a researcher in this field, Dr Bob James.

Friendly Societies

As the craft union movement broadened, less skilled and rural workers began to organise. Three great strikes convulsed the continent of Australia in this period: the 1890 maritime strike; the 1891 shearers' strike; the 1892 Broken Hill miners' strike; and the 1894 shearers' strike. When a large number of sheep shearers in Queensland struck against poor conditions and wages that were being lowered, the Queensland police responded with violence and broke up the strike. Each of these industrial conflicts was seen as a demoralising blow for the labour movement. William Lane and many others sought refuge in building a new society called New Australia in Paraguay. Others in the labour movement, demoralised with direct action, turned to a political solution and sought election to parliaments using manhood suffrage, thus resulting in the formation of the Australian Labor Party.

Eight Hour Procession, 4 October 1909

1890s Great Strikes

During 1856 Melbourne Trades Hall Committee was formed and received a grant of land to build the Melbourne Trades Hall, which was completed in 1859. The Trades and Labor Council of Sydney was formed by eight unions in 1871, and Sydney Trades Hall was built between 1888 and 1895. The United Trades and Labour Council of South Australia has a history dating back to 1884.

Trades Halls


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