In Australia, what was the historical role of the trade union and what is the current role of the trade union in the workplace of the 21st century?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The historical role of the trade union in Australia was the same as the historical role of trade or labor unions in any unionized Western country: trade unions protested wage and working conditions, then protected workers and negotiated fair labor and wage conditions. Organized negotiation, planned walk-outs, strikes, and protests eventually combined to result in effective reform to work and wage conditions in Australia as all over the unionized world.

More particularly, historians attribute the first rumblings of trade union agitation to convict protest in New South Wales beginning in 1788 over rations, work conditions and living conditions. In more concrete terms, 1850 was the year the saw the first trade unions when the Stonemasons Union was formed. In 1858 they began a movement for an 8-hour day. One union after another was formed through 1890 when an Employers Union was also formed. 

By 1901, union membership was 97,200 and the Industrial Arbitration Act to protect union's right to negotiate was passed. The 1930s began to show modern gains in union benefits. Annual leave is increased to one week (1939). Eequal pay for women was recognized, then received (1969, 1975). Four weeks annual leave came in 1973. Then opposition to unions began with the Howard Government’s WorkChoices laws in 2006, which minimized workers' protections. It was overturned and replaced by the Fair Work Laws in 2009.

Currently strides forward are being made again with the dissolution of the invasive Australian Building and Construction Commission and with the Fair Work Australia ruling awarding pay increases to social and community industry workers of between 23 percent and 45 percent to take effect over eight years.