Labour History

The Rise and Decline of Australian Unionism: A History of Industrial Labour from the 1820s to 2010

Labour History (2011), 100, (1), 51–82.


In exploring the factors that contributed to the rise and decline of industrial labour in Australia, this article argues that support for unionism initially emerged from a working class that was a product of the country’s unusual economic history. In the twentieth century the implementation of systems of compulsory arbitration, devised to mediate industrial conflict, reinforced support for unionism. In 1948, however, support for unionism peaked and a long process of decline began as the working class constituency that had provided its social anchor disintegrated as a result of structural changes in the economy. The dismantling of arbitration after 1986 exacerbated this established pattern of decline, as did a growth in precarious employment and employer anti-union strategies.

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108.There is an extensive historiography on the Movement and the subsequent ‘Split’. Key studies includeRobert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties,Cheshire,, 1970;B. A. Santamaria, Against the Tide,Oxford University Press,, 1981;Jack Kane, Exploding the Myths: The Political Memoirs of Jack Kane,Angus & Robertson,, 1989;Susanna Short, Laurie Short: A Political Life,Allen & Unwin,, 1992;F.G. Clarke, ‘Labour and the Catholic Social Studies Movement’, Labour History, no.20, May1971, pp.46-59;Doug Blackmur, ‘The ALP industrial groups in Queensland’, Labour History, no.46, May1984;D.J. Murphy, ‘The 1957 Split’, inD.J. Murphy,R.B. Joyce andColin A. Hughes(eds), Labor in Power,University of Queensland Press,, 1980, pp.481-525;Barbara Webster, ‘“To fight against the horrible evil of Communism”: Catholics, community and the Movement in Rockhampton, 1943-57’, Labour History, no.81, November2001, pp.155-73. Google Scholar

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110.Tom Sheridan, Division of Labour: Industrial Relations in the Chifley Years, 1945-49,Oxford University Press,, 1989, pp.248-90;Phillip Deery, The 1949 Coal Strike, unpublishedPhD thesis,La Trobe University, 1976;Phillip Deery, ‘Chifley, the army and the 1949 coal strike’, Labour History, no.68, May1995, pp.80-97. Also see the documentary collection,Phillip Deery(ed.), Labour in Conflict: The 1949 Coal Strike,Occasional Publication, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 1978. Google Scholar

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114.The union density figure published inLabour and Industrial Branch Reports(ABS catalogue no. 6101.0) was for 50 per cent. However, this figure was subsequently revised in 1979 to 49 per cent. SeeTrade Union Members(ABS catalogue no. 6325.0), 1979. Google Scholar

115.For figures relating to waterside workers in Cairns, seeRoss Fitzgerald, From 1915 to the Early 1980s: A History of Queensland,University of Queensland Press,, 1984, pp.199-200. Figures for unionised factory workers were based onLabour Report(ABS catalogue no. 6101.0), no.44, 1955-56, p.152; no.55, 1970, p.283. Google Scholar

116.Gerard Griffin, ‘White collar unionism 1969 to 1981: Some determinants of growth’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.25, no.1, March1983, p.27. An early but still useful analysis of the growth in white-collar unionism isRees D. Williams, ‘“White collars” make council’, Labour History, no.6, May1964, pp.29-37. Google Scholar

117.Griffin, ‘White collar unionism’, p.30. Google Scholar

118.D.W. Rawson, Unions and Unionists in Australia,Allen & Unwin,, 1978, p.39. Google Scholar

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126.For a detailed discussion of the wage campaigns of this era see,Bowden, Driving Force, pp.128-73. Google Scholar

127.Carol O’Donnell andPhilippa Hall, Getting Equal: Labour Market Regulation and Women’s Work,Allen & Unwin,, 1988, p.54;Edna Ryan andAnne Conlon, Gentle Invaders: Australian Women at Work, 2ndedition,Penguin,, 1989, p.192;Strachan, ‘Women’s pay and participation’, p.156;Tom Sheridan andPat Stretton, ‘Pragmatic procrastination: Government, unions and equal pay, 1949-68’, Labour History, no.94, May2008, pp.133-56. Google Scholar

128.For a detailed discussion of aboriginal workers in labour history see the special edition, Labour History, no.69, November1995. For discussions of the Green Bans movement, seeVerity Burgmann, ‘The Green Bans Movement: Workers’ power and ecological radicalism in Australia in the 1970s’, Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 2008, vol.2, no.1, pp.63-90;Meredith Burgmann andVerity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union: Environmental Activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation,University of New South Wales Press,, 1998;Pete Thomas, Taming the Concrete Jungle: The Builders Laborers Story,Builders Laborers Federation,, 1973. Google Scholar

129.For a detailed discussion of the factors underpinning the crisis of manufacturing see,Jenny Stewart, The Lie of the Level Playing Field: Industry Policy and Australia’s Future,Text Publishing Co.,, 1994, pp.74-88. Google Scholar

130.Bowden, Driving Force, pp.171-73. Google Scholar

131.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Statistics, (catalogue no.6101.0),, 1982, p.131. Note: changes in the method of collecting union statistics mitigates against direct comparison with pre-1976 figures. Earlier figures were based on union membership lists. Latter figures were based on household surveys. Google Scholar

132.‘Statement of Accord by the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions regarding economic policy’, inFrank Stilwell, The Accord… and Beyond,Pluto Press,, 1986, appendix A. Google Scholar

133.For an overview of these events, seeStilwell, The Accord. For a recent addition, seeJoe Collins andDrew Castle, ‘Labor neoliberals or pragmatic neo-Laborists? The Hawke and Keating Labor Governments in Office, 1983-1996’, Labour History, no.98, May2010, pp.25-38. Google Scholar

134.Henry Lee andJim Hagan, ‘The Illawarra’, inJim Hagan(ed.), People and Politics in Regional New South Wales: The 1950s to 2006,Federation Press,, 2006, p.100. Google Scholar

135.Taksa, ‘Workplace, community, mobilisation and labour politics’, p.58. Google Scholar

136.For studies of the impact of employer associations on industrial relations change in this era, seePeter Sheldon andLouise Thornthwaite(eds), Employer Associations and Industrial Relations Change: Catalysts or Captives? Allen & Unwin,, 1999. For a recent addition, seeDamien Cahill, ‘Business mobilisation, the New Right and Australian Labor Governments in the 1980s’, Labour History, no.98, May2010, pp.7-24. Google Scholar

137.Australian Council of Trade Unions/Trade Development Commission, Australia Reconstructed,Economic Planning Advisory Council,, 1987. Google Scholar

138.For an overview of these changes, seeBraham Dabscheck, ‘The slow and agonising death of the Australian experiment with conciliation and arbitration’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.43, no.3, pp.277-93. Also, for the period prior to 1996,Braham Dabscheck, The Struggle for Australian Industrial Relations,Oxford University Press,, 1995. Google Scholar

139.Michael Alexander,Roy Green andAndrew Wilson, ‘Delegate structures and strategic unionism: Analysis of factors in union resilience’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.40, no.4, December1998, p.665. For similar views, seeDavid Peetz,Barbara Pocock andChris Houghton, ‘Organisers’ roles transformed? Australian union organisers and changing union strategy’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.49, no.2, April2007; p.151;David Peetz, Unions in a Contrary World: The Future of the Australian Trade Union Movement,Cambridge University Press,, 1998, p.120;Peetz, Brave New Work Place, p.161;Fairbrother andYates, ‘Unions in crisis’, pp.6-7;Bramble, Trade Unionism in Australia, p.14;Barbara Pocock, ‘Institutional sclerosis: Prospects for trade union transformation’, Labour & Industry, vol.9, no.1, April1998, pp.24-25. Google Scholar

140.Alexander,Green andWilson, ‘Delegate structures and strategic unionism’, pp.663-89;Peetz, Brave New Work Place, pp.164-65;David Peetz, Why Join? Why Stay? Instrumentality, Beliefs, Satisfaction and Individual Decisions on Union Membership, Discussion Paper no. 356, Centre for Economic Policy Research,Australian National University,, 1997;Gerard Griffin andStuart Svensen, ‘The decline of Australian union density: A survey of the literature’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.38, no.4, December1996, pp.505-47. The major surveys were,Ron Callus,Alison Morehead,Mark Cully andJohn Buchanan, Industrial Relations at Work: The Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey,Australian Government Printing Service,, 1991;Alison Morehead,Mairi Steele,Malcolm Alexander,Kerry Stephen andLinton Duffin, Changes at Work: The 1995 Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey,Longman,, 1997. Google Scholar

141.Robert Drago andMark Wooden, The Changing Role of Trade Unions in Australian Workplace Industrial Relations, Discussion Paper Series no. 3,National Institute of Labour Studies,, 1998, p.55. Google Scholar

142.Ian Castles, Australian Social Trends, 1994: Trends in Trade Union Membership,Australian Bureau of Statistics,, 1995, table 3;ABS, Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Members(ABS catalogue no. 6310.0), August2009, p.28. Google Scholar

143.ABS, Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Members(ABS catalogue no. 6310.0), August2009, pp.31-34. Google Scholar

144.Dabscheck, Struggle for Australian Industrial Relations, pp.30-31;Jim Kitay andRod Power, ‘Exploitation at $1000 per week? The Mudginberri dispute’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.29, no.3, September1987, pp.365-400;Simon Blackwood, ‘Doomsday for the Queensland labour movement: The SEQEB dispute and union strategy’, Politics, vol.24, no.1, 1999, pp.68-96. Google Scholar

145.Bruce Hearn Mackinnon, ‘CRA/Rio Tinto in the 1990s: A decade of deunionisation’, Labour History, no.97, November2009, pp.75-96. Google Scholar

146.Michael Barry, ‘Employer associations in coal mining’, inSheldon andThornthwaite(eds), Employer Associations, pp.134-36;Michael Barry andPeter Waring, ‘“Shafted”: Labour productivity and Australian coal miners’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, vol.44, December1999, pp.89-112;Bradley Bowden, ‘Employer associations in road transport’, inSheldon andThornthwaite(eds), Employer Associations, pp.106-13;Patrick O’Leary andPeter Sheldon, ‘Employer militancy in Victoria’s meat industry, 1986-93’, Labour History, no.95, November2008, pp.223-42. For an overview of anti-union strategies in Australian labour history, seeRae Cooper andGreg Patmore, ‘Private detectives, blacklists and company unions: Anti-union employer strategy and Australian labour history’, Labour History, no.97, November2009, pp.1-11. Google Scholar

147.Rae Cooper,Bradon Ellem,Chris Briggs andDianne van den Broek, ‘Anti-unionism, employer strategy, and the Australian state, 1996-2005’, Labor Studies Journal, vol.34, no.3, September2009, pp.339-62. Google Scholar

148.For a comprehensive history of the dispute, seeHelen Trinca andAnne Davies, Waterfront: The Battle that Changed Australia,Doubleday/Random House,, 2000. Google Scholar

149.Australian Council of Trade Unions, Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement,Australian Council of Trade Unions,, 1987. Google Scholar

150.Dabscheck, Struggle for Australian Industrial Relations, p.135;Michael Costa andMichael Duffy, Labor, Prosperity and the Ninties: Beyond the Bonsai Economy,Federation Press,, 1991, p.107;Barbara Pocock, ‘Trade unionism in 1995’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.38, no.1, March1996, p.132. Google Scholar

151.Mark Wooden, ‘Union amalgamations and the decline in union density’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.41, no.1, March1999, pp.35-52. Google Scholar

152.Early expositions of the ‘organising model’ in the United States are found inAndy Banks andJack Metzgar, ‘Participating in management: Union organising on a new terrain’, Labor Research Review, vol.14, no.1, 1989, pp.1-55;Tom Conrow, ‘Contract servicing from an organising model: Don’t bureaucratize, organize!’, Labor Research Review, vol.17, no.1, pp.45-59. Google Scholar

153.There is an extensive international literature in support of the ‘organising model’. See, for example, the studies inFairbrother andYates(eds), Trade Unions in Renewal. Also those inKate Bronfenbrenner,Shelton Friedman,Richard W. Hurd,Rudolph A. Oswald andRonald L. Seeber(eds), Organizing to Win: New Research on Union Strategies,IRL Press,, 1998;Kate Bronfenbrenner, ‘The role of union strategies in NLRB certification election’, Industrial and Labor Relations, vol.50, no.2, 1997, pp.195-212;Edmund Heery,Melanie Simms,Dave Simpson,Rick Delbridge andJohn Salmon, ‘Organising unionism comes to the UK’, Employee Relations, vol.22, no.1, 2000, pp.39-52. For the ‘organising model’ in Australia, seePeetz, Brave New Work Places, pp.163-65;Peetz,Pocock andHoughton, ‘Organisers’ roles transformed?’pp.151-66;Rae Cooper, ‘Peak Council organising at work: ACTU Strategy 1994-2000’, Labour & Industry, vol.14, no.1, August2003, pp.1-15;Bob Carter andRae Cooper, ‘The organising model and the management of change: A comparative study of unions in Australia and Britain’, Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations, vol.57no.4, Autumn2002, pp.712-42;Rae Cooper, ‘Getting organised? A white-collar union responds to membership crisis’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.43, no.4, December2001, pp.1-15;Gerard Griffin andRosetta Moors, ‘The fall and rise of organising in a blue-collar union’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.46, no.1, March2004, pp.39-52. Google Scholar

154.Cooper, ‘Getting organised?’, pp.1-15;Griffin andMoors, ‘The fall and rise of organising in a blue-collar union’, pp.39-52;Bradon Ellem, ‘“We’re solid”: Union renewal at BHP Iron Ore, 1999-2002’, International Journal of Employment Studies, October2002, pp.23-46;Bradon Ellem, ‘New unionism in the old economy: Community and collectivism in the Pilbara mining towns’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.45, no.4, December2003, pp.423-41. Google Scholar

155.Rae Cooper, ‘Trade unionism in 2001’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.44, no.2, June2002, pp.247-50;Peetz, Brave New Work Places, p.163;Gerard Griffin, ‘Australian unions: Still in crisis’, inCraig Phelan, Trade Union Reviltalisation: Trends and Perspectives in 34 Countries,Peter Lang,, 2007, p.559. Google Scholar

156.For a critical analysis, seeRuth Barton,D. Snell andPeter Fairbrother, ‘Unions in the Twenty-First Century and beyond: The multiple dimensions of union renewal’, inUnions in the Twenty-First Century and Beyond: The Environment, Politics and Education Conference, 17-18November2008,Monash University,;Bradley Bowden, ‘The organising model in Australia: A reassessment’, Labour & Industry, vol.20, no.2, December2009, pp.138-58. Google Scholar

157.For a detailed study of this campaign, seeKathie Muir, Worth Fighting For: Inside the Your Rights at Work Campaign,UNSW Press,, 2008. Google Scholar

158. Australian, 17-18May2008, pp.1, 19. Google Scholar

159. Sydney Morning Herald, 20September2010, pp.1-2. Google Scholar

160.T. Moroney, ‘Foreword’, inLane, Dawn to Dusk, p.17. Google Scholar

161.Ibid., p.19. Google Scholar

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Author details

Bowden, Bradley