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AWU Timeline

 

 

Year

Event

18866666666 The veteran leader of Miners’ Union, William Guthrie Spence, and a 24 year old shearer, David Temple, begin organising shearers; establishment of Australasian Shearers’ Union on 16 June 1886 at Fern’s Hotel in Ballarat. The new union is headquartered in the town of Creswick near Ballarat in Victoria.
1887 Creswick, Bourke and Wagga Wagga unions form the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australia (ASU). Creswick initially dominates. Spence is declared President and Temple Secretary. Formation of Queensland Shearers’ Union (QSU), which becomes the biggest Queensland union by 1889.
1888-90 ASU expands into the then colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, and membership rises to 20,000 shearers.
1890 Establishment of the iconic weekly Brisbane Worker newspaper. ASU conference results in a decision to reject employer anti-union ‘freedom of contract’ agreements; affiliates with Trades Halls in New South Wales and Victoria. QSU affiliates with Australian Labour Federation (ALF). The so-called ‘Maritime Strike’, involving 30,000 Australian workers, takes place from August to November.
1891 ASU establishes the General Labourers’ Union, which represents shed-hands and a wide range of rural workers; QSU and Queensland Workers’ Union (shed-hands) form AWUQ. Queensland pastoral strike escalates – anti-union government send in the military. In July, ASU Executive Council concedes freedom of contract. Wagga Branch publishes The Hummer.
1892 Queensland unionists announce the manifesto of the Queensland Labour Party, one of the founding documents of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), at the foot of the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine, Queensland. The occasion is reputedly known as the birth of the Labor party in Australia.
1894 NSW shearer Donald Macdonell successfully pushes for the ASU/GLU amalgamation to form the Australian Workers’ Union. David Temple walks out of conference, and William Spence replaces him as General Secretary. Queensland pastoral strike occurs, the biggest in the state’s history.
1895 Impact of economic depression and drought prompts membership fall from estimated 17,000 to 7,000, and it continues to fall throughout the 1890s. In response, the AWU closes some branches and shifts its head office to Sydney.
1899 AWU is the first union to gain representation at Political Labor League (PLL) conferences; PLL asks AWU to organise country New South Wales.
1900 Temple resigns, and Donald Macdonell becomes General Secretary.
1901 AWU member Chris Watson is elected to Federal Parliament and becomes leader of the Labour Party. 
1902 AWU membership estimated at 14,000; pastoral strike in NSW inflames tensions between the newly-formed Machine Shearers Union (MSU) and the AWU.
1904 AWU and AWUQ amalgamate: total membership 30,000, ‘largest and wealthiest union in Australia’. Establishment of the Conciliation and Arbitration act 1904, which allows industry awards to be registered, and set legally binding wages and conditions for workers. Watson becomes Prime Minister of Australia, the first national Labour government in the world.
1907 MSU collapses; first Federal Pastoral Industry Award, which increased wages by 20% and set 48-hour working weeks. 
1910 Supported by the AWU and its vast network of organisers and newspapers, Andrew Fisher becomes Prime Minister of the first majority national Labour government in the world.
1911 Macdonell dies and is replaced as General Secretary by Tom White.
1912 White dies, and another shearer, Edward ‘Ted’ Grayndler, becomes General Secretary, a position he holds for an unprecedented 29 years. 
1913 Amalgamation with the Amalgamated Workers’ Association (AWA (Qld making the AWU the nation’s biggest union and establishing Queensland as its powerbase); The Sydney Worker is renamed The Australian Worker.
1915 Former AWU organiser Billy Hughes becomes Prime Minister of Australia in World WarI.
1916-17 Military conscription referendums divide Australia and the ALP. The Henry-Boote edited  The Worker is the leading voice of the successful ‘No’ campaigns. Hughes and Spence split from the ALP as a result of the failed referendums.
1917 Amalgamation with the Federated Mining Employees Association of Australia. AWU the largest union in Australia, with membership estimated at 86,000, and globally unique in its size and scope.
1917-23 One Big Union movement gains support to consolidate the power and influence of Australian unionists. Although backed by some unions, AWU opposes the plan, and the OBU fails to eventuate.
1927 Formation of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in Melbourne as a second attempt to amalgamate unions. The AWU rejects the ACTU, however, and it is nearly forty years before the two affiliates. 
1931-32 Great Depression creates massive unemployment, poverty and social division. The governing federal Labor party – led by former AWU organiser Jim Scullin – splits into three camps, and the ALP is soundly beaten at the 1931 election. The AWU’s long-held ambition of publishing a daily paper, The World, is briefly revived, but proves unsustainable.
1931-32 Clarrie Fallon becomes Queensland Branch secretary. Queensland is considered the largest AWU branch with estimated 53,000 members.
1936 The 50th Anniversary of the foundation of the AWU celebrated at the union’s Victorian birthplace in Ballarat.
1941 Grayndler, who led the AWU through World War I and the Great Depression, retires, and Clarrie Fallon becomes General Secretary.
Former AWU organiser and ex-editor of the Westralian Worker newspaper John Curtin becomes Prime Minister of Australia. 
1942 AWU firmly backs the Curtin government’s efforts during World War II but dissents from its decision to send conscripts to the South-West Pacific theatre of operations.
1944 Another Queenslander, ‘Big’ Tom Dougherty, becomes General Secretary.
1947 The Arbitration Court approves the 40-hour work week to all Australians; the law comes into effect on January 1, 1948. 
1949 NSW coal strike. Henry Boote, long-time editor for The Australian Worker (1916-43), dies. Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme begins.
1954-55 AWU denounces Industrial Groups, known as ‘groupers’, established within unions and the Catholic Church to counter communism. Following defeat in the 1954 federal election, the ALP splits due to conflict over communism, the groupers, and arguments over the proper role of the Church in politics.
1956 Shearers’ strike spreads from Queensland to the southern states, resulting in a victory for workers as the Commonwealth Industrial Court increases wages for the industry. 
1957 Queensland ALP splits, and the AWU disaffiliates from the branch.
1959 Clyde Cameron forms Council for Membership Control.
1964-65 Mount Isa dispute erupts over a rejected award rate increase, dividing members, organisers and the union’s leaders, and a state of emergency is declared. The dispute ends six months later with most demands met. 
1967 AWU affiliates with the ACTU, forty years after the council was formed. 
1972 Tom Dougherty dies while still holding office, and Frank Mitchell becomes General Secretary. AWU abandons White Australia policy. AWU member Gough Whitlam leads Labor into government after 23 years in opposition.
1974 Merger of Brisbane Worker and Australian Worker into a single paper; New South Wales AWU announces amalgamation with Shop Assistants Union (SAU).
1977 Proposed amalgamation between Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) and AWU in New South Wales revealed; AWU-SAU amalgamation collapses.
1983 West Australian mining organiser Gill Barr becomes General Secretary.
1983 Hawke Labor government elected at that year’s federal election. The Federal Pastoral Industry Award is altered to allow the use of ‘wide comb’ shears. Shearers embark on a ten-week strike in retaliation, heavily supported by the AWU, but the decision is upheld, and wide combs eventually become commonplace in Australian shearing sheds. National Farmers Federation (NFF) launch their first ‘incapacity to pay’ application.
1985 Charlie Oliver retires as New South Wales AWU president.
1986 The 100th Anniversary since the foundation of the AWU celebrated at the Union’s birthplace in Ballarat.
1986 Robe River’s new owner sacks the on-site management team and overhauls operations in July, increasing hours and reducing meal breaks, resulting in a mass walkout. 1160 workers were locked out, resulting in daily confrontation between workers and Robe River managers. Operations resumed in September.
1987 Former shearer Errol Hodder becomes General Secretary.
1991 Future Labor Senator Mike Forshaw becomes General Secretary.
1993 AWU amalgamates with its sometimes friend and rival the FIMEE (also known as FIA, the Ironworkers’ Union), with an estimated combined membership of 160,000. The new union is originally called the AWU-FIMEE Amalgamated Union. Joint National Secretaries are Forshaw (AWU) and Steve Harrison (FIMEE), Joint National Presidents are Bob Redmond (FIMEE) and former shearer ‘Big’ Bill Ludwig (AWU).
1994 Michael Forshaw resigns, and Ian Cambridge becomes the new Joint National Secretary.
1995 AWU-FIMEE Amalgamated Union changes its name to The Australian Workers’ Union.
1996 Rules changed to only have one National Secretary and one National President, with Steve Harrison and Bill Ludwig filling those positions.
1997 Steve Harrison resigns, Vern Falconer new National Secretary.
1997 BHP Steel announces that the Newcastle Steelworks is to close in 1999, costing 7,000 jobs. 
1997 Former FIA official Terry Muscat elected National Secretary. Another FIA leader, Graham Roberts, is elected National President.
2001 Victorian state secretary Bill Shorten elected National Secretary, Bill Ludwig is elected National President and Graham Roberts elected Assistant National Secretary, all unopposed.
2001 Ansett Australia collapses, leaving over 17,000 employees out of work, including several thousand AWU members, in the largest mass job loss in Australian history. AWU joins with other unions in a long campaign to ensure former Ansett workers receive their full entitlement, and the government announces a special entitlements scheme in 2003 to ensure all outstanding wages are paid. Final dividends are paid out to former employees in 2011.
2001 Shorten moves AWU’s national office from Melbourne to Sydney, where it had been since 1895; however an annex of the National Office remains in Sydney.
2004 The Australian Worker is re-launched in a joint effort between the AWU and Australian Consolidated Press.
2005 Shorten re-elected National Secretary, Ludwig re-elected National President and Roberts re-elected Assistant National Secretary, all unopposed.
2005 The Boeing Williamtown Dispute unfolds, which lasts for 262 days after Boeing refuses to allow employers to negotiate a collective agreement.
2006 The 120th Anniversary since the foundation of the AWU celebrated once more at the Union’s spiritual birthplace in Ballarat.
2007 After a determined campaign by the AWU and the ACTU, John Howard’s anti-union WorkChoices legislation, is rejected by voters at the 2007 federal election. Bill Shorten elected to Federal Parliament at the same election.
2007 Paul Howes is elected National Secretary of the Union, becoming the Union’s youngest National Secretary since David Temple. The National Office returns to Sydney.
2008 Paul Howes is elected as ACTU Vice President, the first AWU official to hold an elected position in the ACTU for over 30 years.
2009 The Rudd Labor Government passes the Fair Work Act 2009, which reinstates organisers’ right of entry, and collective bargaining capabilities to Australian workplaces. The Global Financial Crisis peaks, eventually at the cost of the jobs and livelihoods of many AWU members, particularly in manufacturing.
2013 Paul Howes re-elected National Secretary, Bill Ludwig re-elected National President and Scott McDine re-elected Assistant National Secretary all unopposed. Bill Ludwig stands down as Queensland Branch Secretary after 25 years in the job – Ben Swan is elected unopposed as Branch Secretary.
2013 After a two-year campaign, the AWU secures the re-unionisation of the Rio Tinto Bell Bay Aluminium Smelter, the first wholly de-unionsed workplace to re-unionised in Australian history. The majority of the workforce votes in favour of the AWU negotiating a collective agreement on their behalf. 
2014 West Australian former Alcoa refinery worker Scott McDine is elected National Secretary. Daniel Walton is elected Assistant National Secretary.
2014 ‘Reserve Our Gas’ campaign is launched in the wake of increased exports of natural gas to protect manufacturing jobs. ALP Leader Bill Shorten adopts the campaign objective as Labor policy in 2015. In 2019, the Coalition Government announces it will investigate a domestic gas reservation scheme.
2015 BlueScope considers closing its Port Kembla plant at the height of the nationwide steel crisis. The AWU negotiates a deal to keep the plant open, saving 1500 jobs. 
2016 Daniel Walton is elected New South Wales and National Secretary. Misha Zelinsky is elected Assistant National Secretary. The three New South Wales branches are merged into a single headquarters at Granville, with offices in Newcastle and Port Kembla. In Queensland, Organiser Marina Chambers is elected Branch President
2017 The Australian Federal Police (AFP) raid AWU National head office as part of an investigation by the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) into past donations. A public and political backlash erupts against the investigation.
2018 As part of its revised approach to organising the AWU launches Hair Stylists Australia, an online-only union dedicated to hair stylists across Australia, and returns to its past strengths, turning back to industries such as agriculture. In Queensland, after Ben Swan stands down as Queensland Branch Secretary, AWU Southern District Secretary and former Organiser Steve Baker is elected unopposed as Branch Secretary.

 

FIMEE Timeline

Year

Event

19116666666 The Federated Ironworkers Association of Australia, an amalgamation of smaller iron and steel industry unions, registered under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act. Membership app. 5,000.  
1911-12 Major strike of ironworkers at Hoskins Works at Lithgow prompts a call for nationalisation of the iron and steel industry. Holman Labor Government baulks at high cost of establishing a new government-owned industry.  
1915 Birth of the modern Australian steel industry with the Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited (BHP) beginning steel making operations at the Newcastle Steelworks.  
1916-17 Poor working conditions and wage cuts prompted by the continuing home-front demands of the First World War lead to a wave of strikes in the steel industry, culminating in the Great Strike of 1917. FIA joins most other NSW unions in strike action. BHP dismisses strikers, employs non-union labour and organises a ‘company union’. FIA de-registered as an industrial union.  
1917 Formation of the FIA’s Balmain Branch, covering the ship repair industry at Mort’s Dock and nearby Cockatoo Island. 
1919-27 A weakened FIA re-registered, and holds amalgamation talks with the Australian Workers Union. Rivalry between the unions and job cuts at BHP (prompted, BHP said, by high pay increases and a collapse in international steel prices) leads to a collapse in union membership. FIA revives as a more militant organisation. 
1927 Australian Iron and Steel begin operations at Port Kembla. 
1929-33 Great Depression. Australian steel production collapses to 1901 levels. FIA membership of 16,000 in 1929 halved. 
1932 Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge completed. Several hundred ironworkers were employed on its construction: eight ironworkers lost their lives.  
1935 BHP takes over Australian Iron and Steel, and expands into pipe and tube manufacture.  
1936 Ernest Thornton, a communist activist, elected as the first full-time National Secretary of the FIA. The FIA Federal Council also authorised Thornton to engage an office secretary and buy furniture. In 1938 Thornton was also elected Victorian Branch Secretary. 
1938 FIA members at Port Kembla strike in support of the campaign to stop exports of pig iron to the aggresively militarist Japan. Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who insisted that the exports continue, was dubbed “Pig Iron Bob”. 
1938 BHP begin operations at Whyalla in South Australia.  
1939 The first issue of the national FIA newspaper, The Ironworker, is published, and the FIA national office moves to Sydney. Communist candidates win control of the Newcastle and South Australian branches.  
1939-45 Second World War. Steel production and employment boosted. FIA membership rises to 48,000 by 1942. 
1943 The Ironworker becomes Labor News, reflecting the FIA’s amalgamation with the munition workers union. 
1945 FIA faction fighting intensifies, focused on tension between the national union and the Balmain branch, the only branch of the FIA not controlled by communists who supported the Soviet Union and its leader, Joseph Stalin. 
1945-46 Major steel strike begins in Port Kembla and spreads to other centres, over victimisation of workers and other issues. The strike was only partly successful. 
1948-49 FIA elections reveal bitter internal disputes over “Cold War” issues – many ironworkers refuse to endorse the Thornton leadership’s support for Russia, and opposition to the Australian Labor Party. FIA official Cecil Sharpley defects from the Communist Party, and alleges that communist-controlled unions had rigged union ballots. Laurie Short, a boilermaker’s assistant at Cockatoo Island, emerges as the leader of the pro-ALP forces within the FIA. 
1949-51 Short initiates a legal challenge to Thornton’s re-election as National Secretary in 1949. In 1951, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court ordered that Short should be appointed National Secretary, finding that Thornton’s election had benefited from 1,800 forged ballot papers. Short’s victory was a major setback for Communist Party control of Australian unions.
1952 Short entrenches his control of the FIA with election defeats for communist officials in every FIA branch. 
1954 The FIA affiliates with the International Metalworkers Federation, reflecting the influence of American unionism on the new FIA leadership. Short was impressed by the organisation of the United Steelworkers Union, and borrowed its strategy of campaigning for employer-financed pension schemes, an idea virtually unheard of in Australia.
1958 A new Steel Award significantly improved steelworkers pay and conditions. The FIA also embarked upon a vigorous campaign to improve occupational health and safety in the steel industry.
1960 BHP completes construction of the Whyalla steelworks in the early 1960s, and in 1961 Comalco constructed Australia’s first aluminium smelter at Bell Bay in Tasmania. Later in the decade Alcoa commenced operations at Point Henry in Victoria and Alcan established another aluminium smelter at Kurri Kurri in New South Wales. The FIA recruited thousands of new members in this new non-ferrous metal industry.
1965 The FIA successfully negotiates Australia’s first superannuation scheme for manual workers. Some 30,000 BHP wage employees were eligible to join the retirement scheme.
1972 Nando Lelli, an italian immigrant and steelworker, is elected Secretary of the FIA’s Port Kembla branch. Lelli was a militant who at times clashed with the national officials. Post-war immigration had a significant impact at the Port Kembla steelworks: by the late 1970s its workforce consisted of Macedonians, Italians, Portugese, Greeks and Vietnamese. This was a common pattern in FIA workplaces.
1974 FIA membership reaches a high of 72,500. Following an economic downturn which began that year, thousands of manufacturing industry jobs are gradually lost. FIA membership declines.
1975 FIA amalgamates with the Artificial Fertilisers and Chemical Workers Union.
1980 The FIA computerises its national membership records and its industrial research operations, one of the first Australian unions to do so.
1982 Laurie Short retires as FIA National Secretary. He is replaced by Harry Hurrell, the long-serving Assistant National Secretary.
1988 Harry Hurrell dies. He is replaced as National Secretary by Steve Harrison.
1991 The FIA amalgamates with the Australasian Society of Engineers, a union of metal industry tradesmen, to form the Federation of Industrial, Manufacturing and Engineering Employees (FIMEE). The Australian Glassworkers Union and the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners amalgamate with FIMEE in 1992.
1993 FIMEE amalgamates with the Australian Workers Union.