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A History of Unionism in Australia - from the ETU National Apprentice Manual

The ETU has been advancing and protecting the interests of electrical workers like you for more than a century. We have won the conditions, rights and wages that people take for granted today. From annual leave to safety regulations, if it's part of electrical work today, that's because someone fought hard for it yesterday.

Joining the ETU means you'll be able to hand decent working life on to your kids and their kids.

By becoming active union members, you can protect the gains of the past and shape the workplace of the future.

1854 - Eureka Stockade

The Eureka stockade was the birthplace of Australian democracy. Workers in the Victorian goldfields protested unjust license fees and corrupt government officials and police officers.

It was here that the Eureka flag was first flown. Stockade leader Peter Lalor declared that, "We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other to defend our rights and liberties." The next day a fellow striker, Raffaello Carboni, called on miners "irrespective of nationality, religion or colour to salute the Southern Cross as a refuge for all of the oppressed from all countries on Earth".

Police and soldiers attacked striking miners on December 3, 1854. The clashes killed 22 diggers and seven soldiers, and 120 miners were arrested.

The brutal treatment aroused public support for the miners, who were aquitted. The unjustly expensive licenses were abolished, and the next year, for the first time in Ausrtralia history, "men without property" entered parliament. The eight diggers elected included strike leader Peter Lalor.

1856 - The Eight-Hour Day

Stonemasons in New South Wales and Victoria went on strike to win working hours that allowed eight hours of labour, eight of recreation and eight of sleep. It was the first time workers anywhere in the world won this - a defining moment in the struggles of working people. A monument stands at Trades Hall in Melbourne as a reminder of the victory.

1891 - Shearers' Strikes

Central Queensland shearers fed up with poor working conditions and wage cuts walked off the job in 1891. On May 1 - International Workers' Day - 3000 shearers marched under the Eureka flag to protest their conditions. The strike lasted five months and saw shearers regularly gather beneath a tree outside a railway station. This became known as the Tree of Knowledge and it has become a symbol of the trade union movement and the Labor Party.

Hundreds of people were arrested and 13 men were jailed for three years each for "conspiracy" for their part in the fight for better conditions.

Later, gun battles between police and shearers saw at lease one shearer - Samuel "Frenchy" Hoffmeister - shot dead.

1902 - The Electrical Trades Union is born

Thirty-seven electricians in New South Wales and a further 91 in Victoria meet to form union so they can get increased wages, safer workplaces and enjoy better lives.

Other states quickly followed, and the ETU became a national union in 1912. The ETU established the electrical licence. ETU electricians saved lives and raised safety standards by refusing to work on any installations that hadn't been completed by a licenced electrician.

We campaigned for electrical trades to have apprentices, making sure proper training could be developed and delivered. We won the 40-hour week for union electricians in the 1930's - long before it was introduced nationally.

Today more than 70,000 electricians are ETU members. Supported by officials, they are building on the victories of the past, and further advancing the rights, conditions and wages of electrical workers across Australia.

1907 - Basic Minimum Wage

A Melbourne judge decrees that wages at a Melbourne factory should be enough to support a family. It's the first time that Australian law said wages needed to be fair and reasonable, rather than based on what an employer felt like offering.

The Harvester Judgement, as it was known, set the average weekly wage at a level that could cover food, shelter and clothing for a working person and their family.

1927 - The Australian Council of Trade Unions in born

Union workers gathered at Melbourne in May 1927 to establish a body to represent working people at a national level. To the day the ACTU (Australian Unions on facebook) actively campaigns for better living standards and progressive social values.

1941 - Right to leave

One week's leave becomes the national standard, and sick leave is established.

1946 - Two weeks annual leave becomes standard.

1948 - National 40-hour Week

After two years of campaigning from the ACTU, the 40-hour week becomes law.

1951-3 Long Service Leave

Workers in New South Wales make it first place in the world to introduce long service leave in 1951. The rest of the country follows suit within two years.

1963 - Three weeks annual leave becomes standard.

1965 - Equal pay for Aboriginal People

The ACTU fights legal cases to stop employers discriminating against Aboriginal people by paying them less.

1966 - Wave Hill Walkoff

A stalled 1966 wage claim on behalf of Aboriginal workers at a Northern Territory farming station sparked workers to walk off the station. They set up camp on their traditional lands, and in 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam returned the land to worker Vincent Lingiari, who was one of the traditional owners.

The case resulted in equal pay for Aboriginal workers and was a breakthrough in the fight for Aboriginal self-determination under the law. The ACTU and Australian unions supported the claim through many years of protest.

1969 - Equal Pay for Women

The ACTU campaigns for equal pay for women which was to come into legal effect in 1975.

1971 - Maternity Leave

As a result of a two-year campaign by working people, laws granting three months maternity leave and nine months unpaid came into effect in 1973.

1973 - Four weeks annual leave becomes standard.

1983 - The 38-hour week is introduced.The ECI Contracting Strike begins and lasts for 9 weeks.

1985 - SEQEB Dispute

Conservative Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen sacked more than 1100 electrical workers in the early months of 1985. Hundreds more were arrested as the government tried to replace the unionised workforce with casual non-union labour on lower wages and worse conditions.

It was a brutal attack that took no prisoners. The head of the corrupt government whose hold on power relied on vote manipulation and silencing dissent, Bjelke-Petersen had the Queensland ETU de-registered (banned) and stole worker entitlements like superannuation.

Families were torn apart and some workers took their own lives. Today the Queensland ETU is as strong as it has even been, but the bitter memory of this period is fresh for our members.

1992 - Enterprise Bargaining

Laws that allow a collective agreement to replace the award that would otherwise apply to workers - as long as it does not leave them worse off - are introduced. New unfair dismissal laws give unjustly fired workers legal options. The ECTU also won a test case about parental leave that year.

1995 - Personal carers leave that lets working people take time to look after sick loved ones is introduced.

1996 - Work Choices

The Howard Government makes laws stripping away the rights working people have won over the last century. They aim to make workers negotiate individually instead of collectively, placing people at a massive disadvantage and cutting ujnions and regulators out of the process. The damage that these laws caused is still being felt, as a generation of workers have been let down without union representation. We can reverse this damage by recruiting more members and improving their working conditions and lives.

1998 - Patricks Dispute

The Howard Government intervenes on the side of employers in a dispute between Patrick Stevedores (a port company) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). The Government secretly trained Australian soldiers in Dubai to act as scab casual labour so that the MUA's strike would be broken. Patrick Stevedores sacked 2000 workers in the dead of the night and set security guards in balaclavas with attack dogs on the worksite to stop them returning.

Working people, their unions and the wider community rallied around the sacked workers and formed picket lines. A High Court challenge to the government's actions by the MUA saw a victory for the workers, who were reinstated.

2002 - 36-hour Week

The ETU and other blue-collar unions win a 36 hour working week for their members.

2004 - Asbestos Victory

Working people in the ETU and other unions lead a campaign for people who got sick or died after asbestos exposure to be compensated. Asbestos manufacturer James Hardie is forced to pay the largest ever personal injury settlement in Australia.

2005 - Your Rights At Work

More than half a million people protested against Howard's Work Choices laws on November 15, 2005. The ACTU and hundreds of thousands of union members see the Howard Government booted out of office at the 2007 election.

2006 - The ABCC 

Before Howard leaves office he establishes a special regulator with extreme powers for the construction industry. The powers give workers questioned by the commission fewer rights than criminals. The ABCC can interrogate workers, including apprentices, without the workers having a right to legal representation or the right to remain silent. Refusing to speak to them can land you in jail for six months.

The ABCC was abolished in 2012, but Turnbull and the Liberals have tried to bring it back three times.

2008 - Individual Agreements Banned

The Labor Government abolishes Work Choices contracts - Australian Workplace Agreements - that workers were forced to sign, and which reduced their rights, conditions and wages.

2012 - ETU Wins Apprentice Raises

The ETU's Stand Up for Apprentices campaign see apprentice wages lifted above the poverty line, with raises of up to $389 per week for apprentices locked in.

2024 - The ETU is determined to ensure all workers receive fair wages and conditions. Does this resonate with you? Join us Now!

Stronger together. Proud to be union.

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