A Proud History

A trade union or labor union is an organisation of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members (rank and file members) and negotiates labour contracts (collective bargaining) with employers. This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, complaint procedures, rules governing hiring, firing and promotion of workers, benefits, workplace safety, and policies. The agreements negotiated by the union leaders are binding on the rank and file members and the employer and in some cases on other non-member workers.



Originating in Europe, trade unions became popular in many countries during the Industrial Revolution, when the lack of skill necessary to perform most jobs shifted employment bargaining power almost completely to the employers’ side, causing many workers to be mistreated and underpaid. Trade union organizations may be composed of individual workers, professionals, past workers, or the unemployed. The most common, but by no means only, purpose of these organizations is “maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment".

Industrial unionism is a labor union organizing method through which all workers in the same industry are organized into the same union—regardless of skill or trade—thus giving workers in one industry, or in all industries, more leverage in bargaining and in strike situations. Advocates of industrial unionism value its contributions to building unity and solidarity, suggesting the slogans, “an injury to one is an injury to all" and “the longer the picket line, the shorter the strike."

Eight Hour Days

The eight-hour day movement or 40-hour week movement, also known as the short-time movement, had its origins in the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where industrial production in large factories transformed working life and imposed long hours and poor working conditions. With working conditions unregulated, the health, welfare and morale of working people suffered. The use of child labour was common. The working day could range from 10 to 16 hours for six days a week.

Robert Owen had raised the demand for a ten-hour day in 1810, and instituted it in his socialist enterprise at New Lanark. By 1817 he had formulated the goal of the eight-hour day and coined the slogan Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest. Women and children in England were granted the ten-hour day in 1847. French workers won the 12-hour day after the February revolution of 1848. A shorter working day and improved working conditions were part of the general protests and agitation for Chartist reforms and the early organization of trade unions.

The International Workingmen’s Association took up the demand for an eight-hour day at its convention in Geneva in August 1866, declaring The legal limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvements and emancipation of the working class must prove abortive, and The Congress proposes eight hours as the legal limit of the working day.

The eight-hour day movement forms part of the early history for the celebration of Labour Day, and May Day in many nations and cultures.

Benefits for Australian Workers

So many things we take for granted and are now enshrined in law were secured for working Australians by workers in their unions. Unions work to defend and improve these conditions for all working Australians:

  • Annual Leave and RDOs
  • EBAs
  • Penalty Rates
  • Superannuation
  • Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation
  • Sick leave
  • Long service leave
  • Redundancy pay
  • Allowances: shift allowance, uniform allowance
  • Meal Breaks, rest breaks
  • Unfair Dismissal Protection

Don’t forget that the eye-protecting goggles, footwear, headwear, hand wear protection, the mobile shed that you sit in to eat your lunch, the amenities around your site, the fluoro so your seen, your fridges, ovens, microwaves and kettles weren’t offered to you by your employers. They were fought for by your predecessors - not using fists but by uniting together, suffering for weeks without pay and succeeded for you.

So will you fight for the next generation? We can succeed if we stick together and teach the younger generation.


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