Trade Union Movement In Australia
The Trade Union movement in Australia has a history of more than 200 years, with the convict rebellions started fighting over working as well as living conditions, growing through the years to more recent struggles for maternity leave, superannuation and accident compensation. Apart from fighting for the cause of the workers to get them the best possible working conditions and representing the employees in various industrial disputes and trade negotiations, the Trade Unions have been an integral part of the Industrial relations system in Australia.
The Trade Unions have been trying to lobby the government in relation to multiple causes of workers, including taxation issues, childcare and social justice issues. This paper attempts to outline the evolution of the Trade Unions Movement in Australia, their role and functions, and their responsibilities towards maintaining the harmonious industrial relations, as well as the future of the Unions in Australia, in the wake of new legislations made. 2. 0 BRIEF NOTE ON THE EVOLUTION OF TRADE UNIONS IN AUSTRALIA
The earliest Trade Union formed in Australia was the ‘Australian Workers’ Union’ (AWU). This Union was established in the year 1886 and got its federal registration in the year 1905. “it initially sought to serve unskilled rural workers such as shearers and general labourers and eventually grew to be politically influential within the Australian Labor Party” as reported in the Australian Trade Union Archives article Australian Workers Union (1976-1988) available online in: http://www. atua. org. au/biogs/ALE0286b. htm
With the passage of time, the members of various deregistered unions joined AWU, and with the result the AWU became one of the largest trade unions. It grew to such an extent that it could politically influence the Australian Labor Party. However, there were efforts to bring about one Big Union in Australia during early 20th century. The efforts could not become successful due to the rivalry between the Australian wing of the Industrial workers of the world (IWW) and the AWU. 1850-1900: “This period saw the early development of Australian trade unions.
Legislation had existed in Britain that outlawed unions, similar in intent to the Masters and Servants Act, until the passing of the Trade Union Act in 1871” – as reported in Australian Council of Trade Unions webpage About Trade Unions available online from http://www. actu. asn. au/AboutACTU/abouttradeunions/default. aspx Still AWU continued to be the single largest union. In 1918 the Australian IWW collapsed due to lack of support from the workers. After this period efforts were taken by a group of militant trade unions which was opposed to AWU, to form one big union under the name of Workers Industrial Union of Australia.
All the subsequent efforts to form one big union proved futile due to the continued hostility between AWU and the Workers Industrial Union of Australia. During the same period an advisory body in the name of ‘commonwealth council of federated Unions; was formed in the year 1923. “It functions were limited to dealing with issues that arose from the administration of the Commonwealth conciliation and Arbitration Act and other federal legislations involving wages, hours of labour….. ” observes the Australian Trade Union Archives article Commonwealth Council of Federated Unions (1923-1927) available online in: . http://www. atua.
org. au/biogs/ALE0345b. htm However, due its inefficient handling of the Basic wages revision issue and its non acceptance to become the representative body of the state labour council; this organization was superceded by the Australasian Council of Trade Unions. Combined with this and the dismantling of the Australian Industrial Relations Council by the Government in 1927, all the existing unions were pressured to form a national council, as there was no apex body to unitedly represent the unions. Thus, the various efforts to form ‘one big union’ resulted in the formation of Australasian Council of Trade Union in the year 1927.
The name was changed to Australian council of Trade Union in the 1947 congress. 2. 1 PROGRESS OF THE AUSTRALIAN COUNCIL OF TRADE UNIONS (ACTU) Although the Australian Council of Trade Unions is representing majority of the trade unions throughout Australia, it cannot be said that this body has made a rapid progress in mounting the support of all the affiliated workers’ organizations. This is due to the reason that immediately after its formation in 1927, the ACTU was considered as an organization just to represent the interests of the blue collar trade unions.
It resulted in the formation of various white collar trade unions from the year 1948 onwards like, the ‘Council of Australian Government Employee Organisations , Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations The ACTU managed to integrate these white collar trade unions also in the year 1981. After this, ACTU was regarded as the representative body of all workers’ organizations. Even now the ACTU is being opposed by ‘Australian Council of Professional Associations’ representing a fraction of non-union bodies.
The ACTU could make some progress toward achieving the goals of the affiliated Trade unions, in issues like ‘8 hour day’ by uniting the efforts of other Labour councils also. In the period of early 1980s the efforts of ACTU combined with the labour councils could bring an agreement between the Government, Employers and labour class on wages and prices. This was achieved at a time when the Australian Labour party and the Federal Government were trying to influence the reluctant unions to come in to the foray of the accord.
All along the ACTU maintained very close ties with the Australian Labour party. Another important effort put forth by the ACTU is the formation of ‘Super Unions’ by amalgamating smaller unions, which happened during the period between late 1980s and early 1990s. The recent activity of the ACTU is the campaign against the Government’s new ‘Work Choices’ legislation. Still there exist a large number of independent trade unions and it remains a fact that the unions amalgamated themselves by efflux of time and not by the efforts put by the industries concerned.
3. 0 ROLE AND FUNCTIONS OF TRADE UNIONS While at the beginning of the 20th century the trade union movement in Australia was completely broken down, there emerged a system of compulsory registration of unions and compulsory arbitration of disputes in 1906. This was necessitated by the fear of a wild cat industrial action on a national level. These systems were introduced by the Federal parliament. Thus the role of the early trade unionism was mainly to concentrate on the compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes.
These systems had their control on the industrial relations and trade unionism well up to the 1990s. The main function of the trade union as it was in any other countries was to organize the unskilled to win against the bosses. A milestone in the trade unionism of Australia is the 1912 Brisbane General Strike which virtually undermined the power of the conservative government and also exhibited the might of the labour movement in Australia. The end of the First world war witnessed a wide number of industrial and political unrests leading to the instability of the society.
The Communist party of Australia was formed in the year 1920 and until 1928, the commonwealth government found it difficult to restrict the number of strikes. The trade union membership was at its peak in the year 1927. ‘ The Dog Collar Act’ or the ‘Transport Workers Act’ passed in 1928 mainly to discourage the union activities in forestry and dock-working, put an end to the aggression of the trade union activities and for the protection of their own interests, the Trade Unions formed the ‘Australian Council of Trade Unions’.
“Trade unions have been part of the Australian industrial relations system since it was established over a century ago. As representative organisations they campaign on behalf of their members to achieve the best possible working conditions, and represent employees in disputes and negotiations. They also lobby government in relation to a variety of issues including taxation, superannuation, childcare, and social justice matters”- as per the Office of Industrial Relations, NSW Department of Commerce on Rights & Responsibilities available online from http://www. industrialrelations.
nsw. gov. au/rights/employee/union/tradeunion. html Before the Great Depression, one of the main functions of the trade unions was to provide welfare for unemployed members and to seek jobs for them. Such welfare activities existed in the dock –working and the Dog collar Act was passed to control these unions. The Trade Unions movement of Australia also witnessed a strange phenomenon in that unions for unemployed were formed which justified their existence by attacking local councils or landlords, although they could not achieve anything significant for the unemployed.