Australian labour movement
Infobox Union by Country
country = Australia
national = ACTU
Australian Industrial Relations Commission
legislation = Workplace Relations Act 1996 (2005)
ILOmember = Yes
ILO-87date = 28 February 1973
ILO-98date = 28 February 1973The 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, the unions in Australia, and the political wing, the 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.
Workers to Australia initially came from England under what was called
Penal transportation, 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
Sydneyissued 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
Melbournestopped work and marched from the University of Melbourne to Parliament House to achieve an Eight hour day. Their direct action protest was a success, and they are noted as being among the first organised workers in the world to achieve an 8 hour day, with no loss of pay.
Trades Halland Labour council"
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 Hallwas built between 1888 and 1895. The United Trades and Labour Council of South Australiahas a history dating back to 1884.
1890s Great Strikes
As the craft union movement broadened, less skilled and rural workers began to organise. Four 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 Queenslandstruck 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 Laneand many others sought refuge in building a new society called New Australiain 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.
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 societyto 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.
Growth of the trade and industrial unions
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 densityrates by 1914.
The threats of
wild catindustrial 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.
In part this was caused by two new ideas of unionism:
trade unionismand 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.
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 Strikeshowed the combined power of the labour movement, effectively operating as an alternative social administration for five weeks, undermining the power of the conservative government.
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.
The Labour Movement and World War I
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 Hugheswere defeated, making Australia the only nation at war during the First World Warnot to introduce conscription.
The Labor Governments of Hughes in the Federal sphere, and
William Holmanin New South Wales, were held in low regard by much of the labour movement due to their policies on military conscription.
On 23 September 1916 twelve members of the IWW (most of them active organisers) were arrested and charged with treason under an archaic law known as 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 Twelvewith many unions and people in the labour movement actively campaigning for their release for several years.
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)")
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
Queenslandcounter-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 1917started 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 labour movement in the 1920s
Communist Party of Australiawas formed in October 1920 by a group of Trades Hallradicals that included John "Jock" Garden, the members of the illegal IWW, and members of earlier socialist organisations in Australia.
Strikes in this period were commonplace, and remained threatening to the Commonwealth government until 1928 and the passage of the
Dog-collar actagainst the Waterside Workers Federation. Of particular note is the 1923 Victorian Police strike.
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."
Depression and attacks on unions
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 ACTUand ALP in the 1980s.
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%.
1929 Timber Workers strikewas 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.
A fifteen month lockout during 1929–1930 of miners on the Northern New South Wales Coalfields was particularly bitter. The
Rothbury Riotresulted in police shooting at miners, killing Norman Brown and seriously injurying many more.
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).
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 CPA and the ALP who both established associations (not organised as unions of workers) for the unemployed. The militance of unemployed workers who identified with the CPA or ALP, and the spirit of universal unionism which remained from the IWW, changed these movements of the unemployed into effective unions. The unemployed unions attacked local councils, and occasionally landlords, in order to win conditions. Infamously, a series of CPA inspired riots occurred against evictions in 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.
Second World War and after
The second world war created a significant feeling of sympathy for the
Soviet Unionamongst Australian workers, and the CPA attempted to take advantage of this by industrial agitation after the war in the 1948 Queensland Railway strikeand the 1949 Australian coal strike(the first time the military were used in peacetime to break a strike), and disputes on the waterfront and in the meat industry. This attempt to seize control of the union movement failed and was the start of the decline in communist leadership and influence in the labour movement. At the same time, agitation by Catholic organisations such as the National Civic Council(or Groupers) started setting up of Industrial Groupswithin unions to counter the influence of communists.
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 post war years saw the Australian labour movement support
Indigenous Australiansin their fight for human rights, cultural rights and native title, through supporting the 1946 Pilbara strike, The Gurindji Strikeat Wave Hill in the Northern Territory, equal pay for aborigines and Torris Strait Islanders, and support for the Noonkanbahpeople in their land rights dispute with the Western Australian Government over mining companies disturbing sacred sites [ [http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/IndigLRes/car/1997/3/speeches/seminar1/george.htm Reconciliation in the Community - How do we make it a reality?] - Speech by Jennie George, ACTU President, in 1997] .
During the 1960s a number of militant unions became locked in contests with governments and employers. Governments relied on
penal powersto keep union activists in line. The general strikeover 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 Whitlamand Malcolm Fraser.
The militant wave was broken by the
Australian Labor Party's Wages and Prices Accordin 1984 under Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke. After 1984 industrial militance declined, and a newly amalgamated trade union movement presided over falls in real wages. In the 1985 Mudginberri disputeand the 1986 Dollar Sweets disputeemployer organisations such as the National Farmers Federationsuccessfully backed legal sanctions to defeat union industrial action, which marked a resurgence in New Right attacks on unionism and push to deregulate employment later epitomised under the Howard Government Industrial Relations reforms. The 1989 Australian pilots' strikesaw the Federal Labor Government using RAAF planes and pilots to break industrial action by the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, taken outside the Wages and Prices accord.
With the 1996 election of the Federal Government under Prime Minister
John Howardincreasing 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 disputeresulted with stevedoring firm, Patrick Corporationunder CEO Chris Corrigan, attempting to sack its entire waterfront workforce of 1400 people through company restructuring. The Australian Council of Trade Unionscondemned 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.
The last quarter of the twentieth 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.
Industrial Relations changes in 2005
After the Howard Liberal Government's 2004 election victory, and with a majority in the Senate since 1 July 2005, changes to industrial laws to further undermine the
collective bargainingpower of trade unions look set to continue. In May 2005 the Howard Government announced its Industrial Relations changes known as WorkChoices. This legislation has received widespread opposition from the Australian union movement and from many religious groups and community groups.
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.
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. [ [http://www.actu.asn.au/work_rights/news/1132030724_2357.html Rights at Work Media Release] ] . 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.
The Bill was passed by the Senate, with minor amendments, by a vote of 35-33 on 2 December 2005 and received the
Royal Assenton 14 December.
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.
*"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
*" [http://www.takver.com/history/myunion/index.htm My Union Right or Wrong. A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932] ", Issy Wyner (2003). Accessed 1 May 2005
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