The history of labour unions in Australia goes back to the 19th century with trade unions and political movements being closely and intrinsically linked with it. While the former is the industrial wing of the labour movement, the latter has evolved into the Australian Labour Party with its focus being primarily on political activities. However, the basic ideology of the unions is spread out over a broad canvass comprising of communist, socialist and even right wing views.
Almost all trade unions in Australia are formed on the basis of craft unionism, general and industrial activities and are affiliated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). In the 1980s and the 1990s, there was a significant churn in the Australian labour union scenario, and large scale amalgamations and consolidations were witnessed in the movement. The present structure of labour unions in the country is a result of that shakeup.
As in the UK and New Zealand, the Australian Labour Party takes part in government formation and policy implementation. The seeds of this active party formation were first seen in the 1910 Federal elections when the Labour Party achieved a number of firsts – elected federal majority government, elected Senate majority and the world’s first Labour Party controlled Government at the national level. It was also the first time that the Labour Party had a majority in both houses of a bicameral legislature.
The growth of the Australian trade and labour union movement across the country started in the early 20th century. Before this the movement was in disarray with cluster and isolated cells functioning individually. A few craft unions with militant and dedicated members were the only survivors with most workers not being a part of any organised union. This led to sporadic incidents of wild-cat strikes that were called by specific unions according to their whims which hit industrial output rather badly.
To get around this problem, the Federal government passed legislation that made for compulsory registration of unions and arbitration of any disputes. The Conciliation and Arbitration Act that was passed way back in 1904 guided Australian labour unions till the late 1990s on such crucial matters as industrial relations conflicts and unionism.
This gave rise to a couple of concepts in labour union movement. The first was trade unionism and the second was industrial unionism.
In the trade union model, industry wise classification was the objective. For example, instead of having different unions for ditch diggers and dirt movers, one union was formed that included all people who moved earth.
Industrial unionism went for a much broader perspective. All workers involved in say work onsite including cleaners, plasterers, engine drivers, engineers, accountants and clerks were brought under one umbrella, the “construction industry”. When workers were organised into one union, it became that much easy to call for a general strike that could paralyse all sections of society. The power of the labour unions was amply proved in the 1912 Brisbane General Strike that operated as an alternative administration for five weeks, undermining the authority of the then Conservative Government.
Today, Australia has one of the strongest and most powerful labour union movements in the world.