Where do unions come from and what have they achieved? - ACTU Australian Unions

Where do unions come from and what have we achieved?

For nearly two-hundred years Australian unions have been bringing working people together to get a fair deal at work, and to help make our country a fairer and more decent place.

By giving working people a voice we wouldn’t otherwise have, we helped make Australia the country of the fair go.

And every time the fair go has been under attack, unions have been there to defend it.

The first worker organisations in Australia were formed in the 1820s and 1830s. Workers set up these organisations because they knew that if you bargained with your boss individually you would always be in a weaker position than if you came together with your workmates to get a better deal.

It’s negotiating 101.

By coming together in our own organisations we could make sure we wouldn’t be taken advantage of. For nearly 200 years this has been the core function of unions – bringing workers together to negotiate a better deal than we would get if we were on our own.

Unions have changed a lot since the 1820s, and we can do a lot of things for our members that those early worker organisations could not – but our fundamental purpose is the same.

So, what have unions been able to achieve by bringing workers together to take action?

Well, in 1856 striking constructions workers in Melbourne and Sydney won the reduction of the working day down to eight hours. This was the first time anywhere in the world that the eight-hour day became an industry standard.

We then campaigned in industry after industry to extend this right. Even today you will find it is always unions campaigning for a decent work-life balance, because every working person has the right to a life away from their job.

In 1882 a major strike led by women textile workers (known as Tailoresses) in Melbourne achieved a massive victory. Not only did these workers manage to stop a reduction in their pay, they also established the first union of women in Australia.

Impressive huh? Well wait, there’s more.

This strike led to a major debate on the conditions in factories at the time, leading to a Royal Commission. Laws based on the commission’s findings became some of Australia’s first major workplace health and safety laws. Soon after these laws were passed a new change was made, and the first laws anywhere in the world guaranteeing a minimum wage wereintroduced.

A fair effort from the Tailoresses!

In the twentieth century unions have constantly campaigned for better pay, safer conditions, and more time away from work. We have had heaps of huge wins – you have probably heard of them, but not realised that unions are responsible.

How are these for some highlights?

In 1935, printing workers managed to win one week’s annual leave as a guaranteed right – and subsequent union campaigns extended this to four weeks. That’s where annual holidays come from.

In 1948 a massive union campaign led to the introduction of the 40-hour week, meaning that workers no longer had to work on Saturdays, which before then they had to do.

That’s now called the weekend.

In 1969 and 1972 unions launched two major legal cases that won the right to equal pay for working women. Before then, it was completely legal for women to be paid less than men, even when doing the same work.

Since then we have campaigned against the continuing gender pay gap.

In 1984 union movement collaboration with the government of Bob Hawke led to the introduction of Medicare, our universal healthcare system.

The introduction of paid parental leave in 2011 came after four decades of union campaigns to win all parents the right to guaranteed paid leave to care for their newborn or adopted children – a right we continue to campaign to extend.

And most recently, unions led the charge for the JobKeeper wage subsidy that kept so many workers in their jobs, and increased rate of the JobSeeker subsidy to support those workers who had lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’ve done all of this because we are a community, a community of working people coming together and sticking up for each other.

That’s what unions are, and that’s what unions do.

And we don’t just celebrate our history, we bring working people together so we can make some history. Are you ready?


Get in Contact

Call the Australian Unions Support Centre, we're here to help. It's free and confidential

Call the Australian Unions Support Centre, we're here to help. It's free and confidential

1300 486 466
Send us your questions by email

Send us your questions by email

Email us
Got some quick questions? We might be able to answer them now

Got some quick questions? We might be able to answer them now

Chat now
Call the Australian Unions Support Centre, we're here to help. It's free and confidential

Want to know a bit more? Sign-up to receive updates and alerts about how unions can help you

Sign up now

Ready to join?

Join online, it takes minutes

Join your union