Union Achievements

Just about everything good about our working lives is because of unions.

That is a huge boast, but we can back it in.

Take a look at this impressive list of union achievements.

Annual Leave

Paid Annual Leave was first won after a campaign by printing workers in 1936. The Arbitration Commission granted the workers paid leave, which was then gained by other workers through their unions in different industries. Annual leave loading of 17.5 per cent was first won by workers in the Metal Industry in 1973.


Awards are legally binding documents that set out the minimum entitlements for workers in every industry. The first industrial award, the Pastoral Workers Award was established by the Australian Workers Union in 1908, mainly covering shearers. The shearers had experienced a terrible deterioration of their wages and conditions during the 1897 Depression and decided to take action to protect working people. Since 1904, awards have underpinned the pay and terms and conditions of employment for millions of workers. Awards are unique to Australia and integral in ensuring workers get ‘fair pay for a fair day’s work’.

Penalty Rates

Penalty rates were established in 1947, when unions argued in the Arbitration Commission that people needed extra money for working outside normal hours.

Maternity leave

Australian unions’ intensive campaigning for paid parental leave ended in victory with the introduction of the Paid Parental leave scheme by the Gillard Labor government. Under the scheme, working parents of children born or adopted after 1 January 2011 are entitled to a maximum of 18 weeks’ pay on the National Minimum Wage.


Prior to 1986, only a select group of workers were entitled to Superannuation. It became a universal entitlement after the ACTU’s National Wage Case. Employers had to pay 3% of workers’ earnings into Superannuation. This later increased to 9% and on November 2, 2011 the ACTU and its unions’ “Stand Up for Super” campaign celebrated another win for working Australians, when the Labor Government moved to increase the compulsory Superannuation Guarantee to 12% over 6 years from 1 July 2013 to 1 July 2019.

Equal Pay for Women

Although there were attempts to introduce equal pay going back as far as 1949, the principle of equal pay for women was finally adopted by Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in 1969.

Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation

Workers compensation laws first came into existence in West Australia in 1902. For many years unions agitated and campaigned for health and safety laws which compelled employers to provide a safe working environment. In Victoria, legislation was introduced in 1985 which saw the active role of workers in maintaining safety on the job. Building unions agitated for many years to ban the use of asbestos, finally succeeding in the 1980’s.

Sick leave

Before sick leave, you turned up to work if you were sick, or you went without pay. Sick leave provisions began to appear in awards in the 1920’s and unions have campaigned hard for better sick leave conditions over the years, across all industries.

Long service leave

Coal workers went on strike in 1949 over a 35 hour week and Long service leave. Long service leave was finally introduced in New South Wales in 1951. Unions in other states followed.

Redundancy pay

The Arbitration Commission introduced the first Termination, Change and Redundancy Clause into awards due to work by metalworkers and their union. This entitled workers to redundancy pay.

Allowances: shift allowance, uniform allowance

Unions in different industries have campaigned for allowances that pertain to their members. Many workers who are required to wear uniforms in their jobs, get an allowance for this rather than having to pay for uniforms themselves. 

Shift allowances are money that’s paid for working at night or in the afternoon. Different industries have different allowances that were won by workers and their unions over the years.

Meal Breaks, rest breaks

Before unions agitated for meal breaks and rest breaks to be introduced, workers were required to work the whole day without a break. In 1973, workers at Ford in Melbourne engaged in industrial action over many issues, one of their demands being a proper break from the production line.

Collective Bargaining

Enterprise Bargaining was introduced in 1996 which allowed workers and their unions to negotiate directly with their employer over pay and conditions. Evidence from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that collective bargaining delivers better wages than individual agreements for ordinary workers.

Unfair Dismissal Protection

Unfair Dismissal Protection came from the concept of a “fair go all round”, after the Australian Workers Union took a case to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission on behalf of a worker who had been unfairly sacked in 1971. Since then, unions have campaigned for laws that reflect that ‘fair go’ principle, which is about having a valid reason to sack someone and that the dismissal cannot be harsh, unjust or unreasonable.