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AWU commemorates Union history on International Workers’ Memorial Day

April 28, 2021

On International Workers Memorial Day, AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton unveiled a powerful symbol of Australia’s industrial history in Western Sydney, and drew attention to the union’s tireless fight for fairness, both past and present.

Attended by Blacktown’s Mayor, Tony Bleasdale, councillors, union officials and the public, the event was a remembrance of the lives lost in the workplace, and recognition of the ongoing fight to protect the health and safety Australian workers.

AWU officials and Blacktown City Councillors laid wreaths to commemorate the workers who have passed across the nation.

It was also a formal unveiling of a restored Sunshine Harvester, a piece of machinery that lies at the heart of Australia’s industrial laws.

Daniel and Blacktown Mayor Tony Bleasdale unveiling the Sunshine Harvester

In 1885, the first combine harvesters, produced by Hugh Victor McKay in Victoria, revolutionised the agricultural landscape. The success of the machine, which was able to strip, thresh, winnow, and bag wheat, meant thousands were produced and used throughout Australia.

The rapid expansion of the Sunshine Harvester Works coincided with a sharp rise in union membership. In 1907, an industrial dispute between McKay and union members – including the AWU – led to a landmark decision at the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration on the definition of a “fair and reasonable wage”.

Justice H.B. Higgins’ declared that “fair and reasonable” wages for an unskilled male worker required a living wage sufficient for “a human being in a civilised community” to support a wife and three children in “frugal comfort”.

Higgins set this wage at 7 shillings per day, or 42 shillings per week. Within 20 years, half of the Australian workforce was paid according to the minimum wage decision pioneered by Higgins and the Harvester workers.

The judgement was also credited as the foundation for the national minimum wage, that was included in the Fair Work Act 2009.

The Sunshine Harvester which was unveiled in Blacktown was donated to the City Council in 2019, by Robert O’Neil, and carefully restored by the by the volunteers at Quirindi Rural Heritage Village.

Daniel was invited to speak on behalf of the workers who had had fought for their rights over a century before. In his speech, Daniel outlined the role that unions have played in Australia’s history, and the ongoing battle to put workers’ safety first.

“Australian unions have marked International Workers Memorial Day since 1997. It’s a day we mourn for the dead and fight for the living,” he said.

“And while the work of unions has seen work-related fatalities fall in the recent decades, any workplace death is unacceptable.”

AWU organisers laid wreaths to commemorate Australians killed and injured in the workplace.

Daniel also drew attention to the AWU’s Silica Dust campaign, which is proposing sweeping legislation to protect workers in various industries across Australia from contracting the incurable – and often fatal – disease, silicosis.

“No-one should have to die to make a living. Every workplace death is preventable. And just like in 1907, workers are powerful when they stand together,” he told the crowd.

“They can change their conditions and they can change their nation.”

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