The Australian Labour Movement – a brief history
The labour movement in Australia dates back to the early 19th century and its organising and activism has achieved strong industrial outcomes, fair working conditions, entitlements, and wage growth for all working Australians. In addition, the union movement has also been instrumental in achieving strong social justice outcomes for the disadvantaged and the oppressed both at home and abroad.
Without the union movement and workers standing together to demand change in these struggles, there would be no change. The bosses may have influence and money, despite their protests that giving workers more rights would send them broke, the workers have the numbers and more importantly, each other.
Scroll through the pages below to learn more about some of the achievements and struggles of organised labour in Australia.
The Workers’ Paradise
Chief among the first achievements of the union movement culminated in 1916, when the 8-hour day (5-day week) was introduced into law in Victoria via the Eight Hours Act.
This was preceded by decades of struggle, and spurred by the fact that in the 1800’s, workers worked 14 hour days with no leave entitlements; while employers were able to sack workers without notice. The 8 hour day was introduced nationally beginning in 1948.
Trade unions had developed strongly among blue-collar workers by the late 1800’s, and labour shortages at that time led to high wages for a highly skilled and prosperous working class.
In addition to the 8-hour day unions demanded and won entitlements and benefits for their workers that were unheard of in Europe at the time and Australia gained a reputation as being the “working man’s paradise
Political Solutions and the first “labour” government
By the early 1900’s, the union movement had endured a number of demoralising industrial losses. The majority of the workforce became non-unionised and only a few early unions had survived to this point.
This led to some unionists seeking a political avenue to resolve their struggles, and led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party, the first party of organised labour in the world. The ALP enjoyed considerable success very early on, holding the balance of power in numerous state parliaments and using this to oust sitting conservative governments.
Federally, the ALP formed the first minority labour-led national government in the world in 1904. In 1910, it went one step further, forming the first majority labour government in the world at the national level. It was also forming majority state governments in a number of states by the 1920’s, success that was alluding similar parties around the world for many years.
In 1904, the threat of wildcat industrial action saw the Federal Government introduce a system of compulsory union registration as well as compulsory arbitration in disputes.
Two currents of thought had developed in the movement at this time: trade unionism, which sought to organise all workers in the same job on worksites; and industrial unionism, which sought to organise all workers on one worksite into a single union regardless of their job.
Opposition to Conscription
During the First World War, the Australian labour movement was united in its opposition to conscription.
Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes twice attempted to introduce conscription, in 1916 and 1917, and two conscription referenda were lost to the “no” vote.
This made Australia one of only two nations in the world to not introduce conscription at this time.
Unions Against Apartheid
In a prime example of unions standing up for the oppressed, In the 1950’s, the Australian Council of Trade Unions as well as a number of trade unions launched campaigns to oppose the system of Apartheid in South Africa.
Unions conducted anti-apartheid education, formed international friendship groups and forged solidarity links with the South African trade union movement.
The Building Labourers Federation (BLF) conducted the first green bans in New South Wales in the 1970’s – whereby the union would, at the request of and in consultation with, citizens groups, prevent construction works from happening on sites of ecological significance, or sites of historical and heritage importance.
More than 40 green bans were conducted between 1970-1974 and this had a great influence on planning systems in NSW as well as nationally.
In the 1970’s, as a direct result of the green bans, democratic National and State planning systems were initiated in which heritage as well as environmentally significant sites became a part of a development proposal.
Unions in recent times
By the early 2000’s, the trade union movement had endured nearly two decades of attacks by successive federal governments, starting at the Accord in the 1980’s.
The introduction of WorkChoices by the Howard-led Liberal government in 2006 saw the union movement mobilise around the Your Rights At Work campaign, culminating in the defeat of the Howard Government in 2007.
However, this relief would only be short lived. WorkChoices would be rebadged as “Fair Work Australia” by the incoming Rudd Labor Government. Although collective bargaining and protection from unfair dismissal would return, it is argued that this did not go as far as anticipated and allowed the Abbott-Turnbull Government to attack and restrict the actions of the union movement even further.
Despite the continued anti-union attacks, the movement continues to fight back. It is currently launching its largest mobilisation in more than a decade as part of the Change The Riles campaign.
These struggles, these achievements and these wins happen because workers stand together.
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