Transformation of the Australian Trade Unions

Introduction and background

Workers from different sectors of an economy normally have variety of needs. Therefore, it has been critical for workers to form organizations which have an objective of ensuring the welfare of member workers. The major goals of these welfare organizations which bargain on behalf of workers include demand for better working conditions, creation of more employment opportunities and competitive remuneration for workers who are within the umbrella union.

It is imperative to note that the working conditions have continued to become more dynamic in today’s world. Phelan (2009) points out that due to major advances that have been made in the field of information technology, workers have been equipped with adequate information. The author is quite categorical that since knowledge is potential power, the current generation of well informed employees has developed distinct systems structures in terms of labor movements in order to defend their working rights and privileges (Phelan, 2009). This paper focuses on these important tools formed by workers by outlining how they are normally organized. In particular, the paper offers a succinct discussion of the structure and functioning of Australian trade unions and lays much emphasis on how employee bargaining processes have evolved with time.

History of trade unions

Kelly (2002) posits that the most important duty of trade unions in every part of the world is to negotiate for the improvement of the terms and conditions of members’ employment schemes. These organizations by workers have their original roots in Europe. History reveals that the first organizations of workers were witnessed during the age of industrial revolution (Basu, 2003). As a matter of fact, the industrial revolution age which had been proceeded by agrarian revolution had a very high demand for human labor. This was a period when many workers were not skilled. The situation at hand by this time caused a lot of bargaining between employers and providers of either unskilled or semi skilled labor. It is against this backdrop that trade unions were perceived as the best solution to labor problems that were impeding the individual well being and performance of workers. These workers’ unions were composed of the unemployed, apprentices, students, past workers, professionals from different fields and individual workers (Basu, 2003).

While a comprehensive representation of workers has been an invaluable idea since time immemorial, it is worth noting that trade unions came at a time when medieval guilds were the only available means of enhancing the livelihoods of workers. McCallum (2008) points out that the mechanisms of fostering a healthy relationship between employers and employees varied from place to place. The establishment of trade unions was a continuous process. In other words, it could also be termed as a mere forum for wage earners to ask for better pay by forming of associations which were outlawed (McCallum, 2008).

Trade unions maneuvered their existence through a strong resistance by all employers. Edward (2007) notes that the associations by laborers continued being illegal for a considerably long period of time. He argues that it was unethical to suppress the thriving of bargaining processes, an action which gave employers absolute control of the wages given to workers (Edwards, 2007). Hence, in spite of the vibrancy that was displayed in the activities of these trade unions, most employers continued to suppress workers through meager pay and poor working conditions. Penalties set for persons trying to organize trade unions were a major challenge to their existence. These penalties were huge and had terrible repercussions. In some parts most individuals who tried to make such moves were executed.

However, these unions by workers began to gain political power as result of general civilization and political awakening of citizens. They finally found their way into the body of international labor law. Flemming (2004) explains that the relation between employers and employees was codified when workers’ efforts were legalized. The right and freedom of becoming a member of a bargaining union was also included in the universal declaration of human rights (UDHR) courtesy of article 23. This part also stipulated that no person was to be forced to join such unions (Flemming, 2004). Such were the positive and remarkable steps that were made towards liberating workers of different cadres from the yoke of slavery that was evident in their various places of work.

Australian’s labor movement structures and processes of bargaining before 1990s

Trade unions in Australia are closely intertwined as well as associated with the 20th century labor movements that were spread across the world (Sappey, 2009). This movement had a general goal of bringing to an end child labor, increase work safety, improvee wages for all workers in the nation, boost the living standards of workers and their families, reduce working hours, demand for basic public education and also accrue welfare benefits to the families of the working class (Sappey, 2009). Unions were organized into various sections of skilled workers. This was referred to as craft unionism. In other some parts, unions were made according to workers of a certain trade. This case of organization was termed to as general unionism (Sappey, 2009). In some parts of the nation, professional associations played the role of bargaining for workers. This was mostly done at the level of more specialized jobs like teaching, engineering as well as in the medical field.

Studies reveal that typically, trade unions in Australia were not engaged in any political activities as would probably be the case in other parts of the world (Wooden, 2000). The unions had the status of a legal entity and a role of talking to employers. They had rights to engage in bargaining with employers over pay, working hours and time and the general conditions of the employment. In cases where agreement was not obtained then industrial action was legal. This included arbitrations that were binding in addition to strikes and demonstrations (Wooden, 2000).

As time went by, the autonomous existence of the bargaining structures continued getting diluted by compromise and politics. Different authorities began to question the status held by trade unions. Howell (2007) explains this process of transition by noting that the unions continued becoming non-recognized and union activists and members being prosecuted. He points out that mysterious deaths and imprisonments were also recorded (Howell, 2007). This lack of recognition was a major drawback to the functioning of the trade unions. The entire structures and bargaining processes were paralyzed across the entire nation. All the associations experienced lack of sensitivity, inefficiency and powerlessness. The voice of employees at the work place disappeared and a period of discrimination started in many industries of the nation.

Need for reforms

A normal system of balanced industrial relations is an ideal state that dwells in the minds of employers and employees (Binghay, 2010). The relationship between these two parties is a constantly changing one since they both aspire to protect their interests. The evolution of trade unions in Australia has thus taken a diverse and unpredictable course (Sappey, 2009). The two traditional models of the structures and procedures of worker bargaining in Australia continued losing their ability to protect the employees in Australia. The first one which was referred to as the service model was limited in the sense that it only focused on settling disputes and general workers’ rights. The other model called the organizing model included specialized activists devoted in working to ensure workers wellbeing. The latter was highly targeted by defiant employers. Their efforts to build up confidence were blocked and their campaigns were banned.

This was an era of limited democracy and the worker fraternity in Australia began unified action to challenge the government to look into their welfare. The cry of the employee was evident across the nation (Sappey, 2009). The economy was attributed by unhealthy industrial relations. Strikes, boycotts and street demonstrations became more rampant. Kelly (2002) describes this period as a time of employee-employer relationship revolution in Australian history. He notes that this is the time the government and relevant bodies started to plunge into the matter of employee rights (Kelly, 2002). Basically, this was the period when significant transition was experienced in the formation of trade unions in the nation. Religious workers’ unions came up to assist in securing the positions of their congregants when at the work. The religion based bargaining process was conservative and based on humanitarian grounds. These were more of desperate moves by workers to champion for the recognition of their rights.

Legislative sources of change

The government came up with several legal provisions which explained the great change that was exhibited in the structures during the 90s. There was the adoption of open trade unionship in the nation. The labor law stipulated that for any citizen to be protected they did not have to earn it (Basu, 2003). Trade unions did not have to make people eligible for services on the basis of their subscription to a union. Whenever a union was in action, all workers would benefit from the process of collective bargaining. There was a democratic state provision of right to work and get enumerated fairly (Basu, 2003). All disparity based on trade union orientation was illegalized. The functions and roles of trade unions were clearly stipulated. These job providers of the nation were advised to adhere to the principle of liberal trade unionism. Later in this same decade, a series of law amendments were put in place. There were restrictions of closed unionship and the arrangement of requiring workers to join unions were outlawed (Edwards, 2007).

Industrial relations are a function of the labor law in a nation. If the law allows trade unions to participate in civil decision making, then there will be a desirable co-determination. This will be a great step towards attaining classical national labor relations in Australia. Phelan (2009) realized that the policies provided by the government have been useful to workers as they aspire to get quality treatment. The government has played a very important role by making a very clear set of employee rights in our nation. These provide a base for all agreements and frame works to settle disputes. Sappey (2009) notes that the involvement of the government has laid a ground for organizations to follow. The labor regulation role by the government has allowed employees and employers to come into good terms through corporate decision making. Collective agreements have become wide spread and a strong culture of collective solution finding in labor relations has been cultivated. Research has also shown that the government’s executive role has continued to become more effective even with lesser pressure from workers (Flemming, 2004).

How the structures have changed

Studies have proven that the industrial relation system in Australia has undergone a total change from the old style of negotiations to a complete set of operation (Fleming, 2004). It has become very much based on a principle of collective bargaining with employers and employees negotiating to reach agreements. There is the introduction of procedures which involve contracts with most terms and conditions laid down as agreements. Since the terms are pre-set, there is no need to for employers and employees to keep on haggling over them as the case was in earlier years. The system has become more organized yet it has reached ultimate openness since the entire industrial society has been equipped with the knowledge on trade union recognition and freedom of association (Howell, 2007).The existence of employers’ associations has achieved a national appreciation. This has promoted cohesion in the labor relations.

Reasons for worker bargaining have been made public through the internet (Singh, 2009). The governmental, economic and political importance of bargaining is clear to all people of the nation. The process of bargaining seeks to create a balance of power between the all powerful employers and workers (Wooden, 2000). This has been realized in nearly all sectors and sense of understanding is being attained. A collective power of employees has challenged the management prerogative which was unquestionable in earlier years. Small scale employers who are not well established have a right to work alongside powerful and highly established ones. This has enabled them to relate well with their workers since they have the backup of the former (Wooden, 2000).

On economic terms the bargaining process has been able to set acceptable prices to the labor [provide by the workers of the nation. Basu (2003) notes that good industrial agreements have allowed employees to demand what is substantial to sustain their operations. The employers have also been given an ample opportunity to pay what they can afford. This has definitely helped the economy to reach a compromising solution.

The government has instituted frameworks for employee-employer bargaining. These are rules and procedures upon which collective bargaining in our industrial relations is conducted. They determine the relations between workers and their hosts. Evaluative research has also revealed that today’s bargaining is extremely free from disturbances and interferences which may make biased conclusions (Hepple, 2005). The government has also put in place a control action by instating the income or pay policy which must be adhered to by all persons.

Employee voice at work, equity and efficiency of bargaining

It is expected that employers should look into the central issues raised by trade unions. The employers should also make valid agreements with workers. The whole system of work should ensure the well being of not only the origination but also that of both parties. The duties of employers involve a broad range of issues; organizing and adhering to meetings with employee leaders, disseminating all relevant information in time and in the right manner, responding to proposals in a timely manner. Hepple (2005) proposes that employers should give genuine consideration to all concerns of the employees and should not propagate unfair responses. During the process of bargaining concessions must not be reached but employers must take reasonable stand on all issues which come up. This ensures the activity gets moderated. It also gives the discussion a direction towards the desirable conclusion. Singh (2009) recommends that the employers’ responsibility and authority should not be judged as barbarism.

The implications of change in Australian structures and processes of bargaining

The changes that have been experienced in the Australian industrial relations process of bargaining have led to far-reaching impacts. The standardization of the way activities are done in the nation is one of the remarkable improvements that have been achieved. The intended goal of bargaining being the pace setter in the making of rules and regulations in employment has been relatively achieved. Collective agreements have been reached and employees have also enjoyed several privileges; good wages, bonuses, friendly working hours and holidays. There have been little disputes between employers and employees in the recent past. This has been observed in all sectors of the economy and has been attributed to good industrial relations. Businesses and employers have been able to cope well with the national labor rates, agreements, labor.

Singh (2009) points out that productivity in the nation has stabilized. This has been as a result of consistency in production which has been achieved through productivity bargaining. Employees have been able to make adjustments that have led to economical and more efficient working. Organizations have in turn listened to workers’ desire for increased income. Increased efficiency has led to increased profits. Flexibility has also increased. Employees are able to comply with the instructions given at the work place. This is so because of reasonable workloads which have been set through healthy bargaining. Workers agree to move around in different benches of work as market forces keep on demanding. This explains the high flexibility which has been attained by successful organizations in Australia. It is evident that the practice of job demarcation where a person does only specified work has been outdated and done away with (Flemming, 2004).

Workers have professionally grown and are ready to fit within duties allocated to them since they are paid accordingly. The area of legal working hours has evolved into the birth of paid overtime work through reasonable agreement between employers and employees (Wooden, 2000).


In wrapping up this discussion, it is vital to emphasize that the process of bargaining between those who employ and workers is inevitable. A good industrial relation system is always a product of collective agreement between a nation’s labor providers and their employers. The workers and job providers in an economy coexist in a system that demands a good relation. Moreover, the evolution of trade unions from medieval times has witnessed significant and landmark changes on the way workers’ rights and welfare are being catered for across the world. In spite of the myriads of challenges that have seeming faced these labor movements, it is notable that much success has been realized.


Basu, K. (2003). International Labor Standards: History, Theory, and Policy Options. New south Wales: Blackwell Publishers.

Binghay, V. (2010). Trade unions today. Texas: CBi.

Edwards, L. (2007). How to Argue With an Economist: Reopening Political Debate in Australia. London: Cambridge University Press.

Flemming, L. (2004). Excel HSC Business Studies. Victoria: Pascal Press.

Hepple, B. (2005). Labour Laws and GlobalTrade. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

Howell, C. (2007). Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations

Institutions in Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kelly, J. (2002). Industrial Relations: Approaches to industrial relations and trends in national systems. Queens land: Routledge.

McCallum, R. (2008). McCallum’s Top Workplace Relations cases. Princeton: CCH Australia Limited.

Phelan, C. (2009). Trade Unionism Since 1945: Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. New York: Peter Lang

Sappey, M. (2009). Industrial Relations in Australia. Cranbury: Pearson education.

Singh, S. (2009). Industrial Relations and Labour Laws. New Delhi: Excel Books.

Wooden, M. (2000). The Transformation of Australian Industrial Relations. New south Wales: Federation Press.