chapter  2
35 Pages

Unions in Australia: Struggling to Survive

Throughout the nineteenth century both the development of trade unionism and the emerging system of industrial relations paralleled the experiences found in other English-speaking countries. Although ad hoc combinations of workers, formed with a view to raising wages, were recorded as early as 1795, the first workers' organizations resembling trade unions were trade societies established in the 1830s. Some of these operated mainly as benefit societies through which workers could insure themselves against unemployment, sickness and other adversities. Other organizations acted to protect the interests of their members through industrial action and attempts to regulate the supply of labour. Due to a repressive political climate and generally unfavourable economic circumstances, most workingclass organizations prior to the 1850s were small and short-lived (Turner, 1978, pp. 9-19). The 1850s was a watershed decade both for the labour movement and Australia generally. Free immigration accelerated as a result of the discovery of gold, and the population trebled in this decade. Convict transportation was halted in all colonies except in Western Australia, where it continued into the 1860s. The gold rushes created labour shortages, leading to high wages and favourable conditions for collective organization. An influx of new immigrants, overwhelmingly British, used to the idea of unionism and possessing organizing skills also helped. The first Australian branch of the British-based Amalgamated Society of Engineers was formed in 1852 by 26 emigrant engineers on board their ship to Australia. Over succeeding decades and until the 1890s, Australian unionism developed along predictable lines. The initial unions were mainly craft unions, small and locally based. Unions covering semi-skilled and unskilled workers commenced operations during the 1870s as did the first inter-union organizations. The 1880s saw the emergence of larger unions, typically

through amalgamation of local unions. By 1890, some 350 unions were in existence (Quinlan and Gardner, 1995).