A Brief Outline of the Western Australian Branch of the AWU and our history

A Century of Organising



The Australian Workers' Union has approximately 100,000 members employed in many industries throughout Australia.

Its members comprise the majority of employees engaged in most of our important industries including mining, construction, road and rail construction, dam and weir construction, refining of crude oil, oil and gas, grain, catering and cleaning (on minesites), government, exploration drilling (on and offshore), quarries, explosives, chemical, petrochemical, cement manufacturing/products, forestry, shearing, farming, horticulture, viticulture, pest control, and service stations.

The Union was founded in 1886 and the first meeting was held on the 12th June in Ferns Hotel, Ballarat, Victoria.

At that time it was a Shearers' Union and was known as The Amalgamated Shearers' Union.

In 1894 after the Amalgamated Shearers' Union had amalgamated with the General Labourers' Union, which was composed of shed hands and bush workers, it became known as The Australian Workers' Union. By amalgamation with other bush and labourers' unions, and by extending its constitution, the Australian Workers' Union has come to cover the numerous industries and callings mentioned above.

Some of the aims and objectives of the Union are:

1. To regulate and protect the conditions of labour, the relations between workmen and employers and between workmen and workmen.

2. To regulate conditions on the conduct of the trade, business or industry of the members.

3. To promote the general and material welfare of the members.

4. To provide legal assistance in defence of members' rights.

5. To endeavour by political action to secure social justice.

6. To assist by federation or otherwise kindred organisations in upholding the rights and privileges of workers, and generally to assist in the emancipation of labour.

7. To advocate and fight for a six-hour day and five days of six hours each to constitute a week's work.

8. To oppose the Australian Communist Party and the industrial, political and municipal aims, objectives of the Australian Communist Party or its members acting jointly or individually.

9. To oppose anybody or persons incorporated or unincorporated which by its constitution, aims, objectives, conduct, propaganda or otherwise advocates, assists or encourages the overthrow by force of violence of the established Government of the Commonwealth of Australia or of a State or of any civilised country or of organised Government.





During its over 120 years of existence, The Australian Workers' Union has been directly involved in most of the major social changes which have resulted in better working conditions and higher living standards throughout Australia.

These include:

*shorter working week
*the provision of pensions and child endowment
*adequate wages for work done
*safe and healthy surroundings in the workplace
*the settlement of disputes through the legal processes of conciliation and arbitration
*free compulsory elementary education and higher standards of 
technical education land reform

These beneficial changes were brought about by both industrial and political action.

In the early 1890's the Union was involved in a number of struggles in an effort to improve prevailing working conditions, but suffered setbacks because of the political, judicial, military, law enforcement, press and financial forces to which it found itself opposed.

Realising this, the Union leaders became politically active in their efforts to win justice and fair treatment for its members.

Through the Australian Labor Federation, which was established in Brisbane on 28th May 1889, the Australian Labor Party was formed and succeeded in having representatives elected to the Colonial Parliaments

John Hancock was elected in Victoria on a Labor platform of social change and reform on 17th April 1891. Later the same year, on 17th June, the first Labor members entered NSW Parliament. In Queensland, T.J. Ryan became the first Labor member on 12th March, 1892.

These early efforts, leading to the election of the first Labor Government in the world in Queensland on 1st December 1889, which set the pattern for the policies on production, distribution and exchange, followed by the Party after Federation in 1901.




While AWU members were in the forefront of this political activity, the Union was also taking pioneering steps in another direction.

For a number of reasons the press of the day was hostile to the aims and activities of the Union, which made it impossible to put the workers' case fairly to the public at large.

The first step in remedying this situation was the establishment of the "Worker" newspaper on 1st March 1890 under the editorship of the great socialist writer and philosopher, William Lane.

The Wagga Branch of the AWU followed this lead on 19th October 1891, when Arthur Rae and Walter Head published the first issue of the "Hummer". This became known as the "Worker" newspaper on 24th September 1892, and its base was moved from Wagga to Sydney on 25th March, 1892.

Subsequently Labor leaders in Western Australia followed suit and established the "Westralian Worker" whose editor from 1917 to 1929, when he resigned to enter Federal Parliament for the first time, was John Curtin.

For reasons of cost and the diminution of the role of specialised newspapers following the development of radio and later, television, in 1974 the State "Workers" merged into a single publication produced in Sydney and mailed to every member.

"The Australian Worker" continues today as the oldest continuously produced Labor newspaper in the world.

So now that the Union is well over 120 years old, it continues to play a leading role in the winning of benefits for workers in some of Australia's most important industries.

As Foundation President William Guthrie Spence wrote in his "History of the AWU" in a chapter headed "Fighting Days", the policy of the Union from its inception was conciliation.

That policy still prevails today, and has been the foundation upon which the strength and success of The Australian Workers' Union have been built.




The history of Australian unions goes back to the early 19th century, but it was not until the 1850s that unions as we know them today began to form - a consequence of the gold rush, when craft unions of stonemasons and carpenters started.

It was not until the 1870's and 1880's that unskilled and semi-skilled workers formed unions.

Although a number of small unions of shearers and pastoral workers formed during this time, it was 1886 before the first major successful union began - the Amalgamated Shearers' Union, which started in Ballarat on 15 June 1886.

A number of other unions of unskilled workers formed about the same time, but the A.S.U. was to be the first general union, covering workers in diverse occupations, and offering the protection of collective organisation to itinerant workers spread throughout the country.

The A.S.U. became The Australian Workers' Union in 1894, after amalgamation with the General Labourers' Union.

The success of the A.W.U. is owed to timing and, as always, to "the right man".

The man was W.G. Spence, Secretary of the Amalgamated Miners' Association, who had plenty of experience. He also had great vision, and set two personal objectives for the new Union:

*that the Union must be intercolonial and ignore current political boundaries (giving strength of organisation to itinerant workers);

*that the policy of the Union was first to be conciliation and dialogue rather than coercion or direct action. This was to be, 25 years later, the basis for all Australian industrial relations, which still continues today.

The timing was right because the formation of the A.S.U. was largely a response to pastoralists announcing a decrease in shearing rates from One Pound to 17/6 Pence per 100 sheep.

A young Creswick miner and shearer, David Temple, knew the good work of Spence in the Miners' union, and was concerned about the plight of shearers.

He approached Spence for help, believing it not worthwhile to shear unless they had a union like the miners.

Thus, after an historic advertisement in the Ballarat Courier on 12 June 1886 about 40 shearers turned up to the first meeting of the A.S.U. on 15 June 1886.

David Temple became the first General Secretary and W.G. Spence became the First General President.

The founders of the Union had the foresight to set very broad objectives and to widely define the workers they sought to enrol. This enabled massive growth in the Union. Other pastoral workers were enrolled, and the amalgamation took place with the General Labourers' Union. Other unions, such as the rabbit trappers in the early days, and later rural workers, carriers, timber workers, fellmongers and railway workers, were among the many that joined with the A.W.U.

When the A.C.T.U. was formed in 1927 the A.W.U. had half of all Australian union members at that time. After once reaching a peak of nearly 200,000 members, the membership of the A.W.U. still stands in excess of 120,000 - one of the largest unions in Australia.

Organising in the early days was made difficult by the conditions. Three organisers were sent out to travel from station to station, enrolling members. There were no motor cars then. Frequent changes of horses were necessary.

Despite early success, the 1890's was a period of major setback for all unions - the time of the land boom, subsequent bank failures, depression, and of the great strikes. With economic downturn, pastoralists and other employers held out for 'freedom of contract' - the right to employ workers at any rate of pay they like. Massive strikes followed.

After their losses, the unions realised that they needed some form of direct representation in parliament, and some means by which employers could be forced to recognise their organisations.

Out of the first need grew the Australian Labor Party. Started in Queensland in 1889, it was largely a product of the early A.W.U. activists, particularly because of their dominant role in the disputes of the 1890's. One of the early founders was William Lane, who edited AThe Worker@ newspaper - the first Labour newspaper in Australia, which began in 1890 and still continues today.

Out of the second need grew the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, which was formed after an Act of Parliament in 1904. This new body was important because through the process of registration, it offered protection to both workers' and employers' organisations.

After the historic decision of Justice Higgins in 1907, when he decided that 7/6d was to be a fair day's wage, many unions sought to register as Federal organisations under the new system. This led to massive growth in the number of unions, and in union membership. Employers were not totally opposed to this new growth through registration because if they paid a fair wage, they were able to gain tariff protection from the government and ensure stability for their business.

The Union has also led in politics, being at the fore in the light against conscription during World War I - a fight which was won but which split the Labor Party and the nation. The A.W.U. also expressed its opposition to communism as a form of reform for workers, leading the A.L.P. to this stance. Many Labor leaders and many parliamentarians across the nation have come from the ranks of the A.W.U. It is a matter of pride that three Prime Ministers (Watson, Scullin and Curtin), have risen from its ranks.

From its start as the Amalgamated Shearers' Union in 1886, the A.W.U. has led the fight for improved working conditions for its members, wherever they worked. Now representing members in jobs as diverse as pastoral and agriculture, mining and construction, sportsground maintenance, horse racing industry and the oil industry, the A.W.U. continues this role. The improvements won for its members are at the forefront of the trade union movement. The A.W.U. is truly Australia's greatest Union.