History of Unions and Their Relevance in Today's Society
Following the lead of Britain from where many of the original settlers came, workers in various occupations banded together to form unions. Ship writers, boat builders, tailors, bakers and carpenters were among the first craft unions form in Australia before 1848.
By forming an association workers could obtain better wages and working conditions. However the employers wanted the highest profit margins so wished to keep wages low and spend little money on the working environment. The law of supply and demand in the labour market often determined which group was dominant.
A third factor in the balance in Australia was the government. A successful strike by newspaper workers in 1829 for better wages and conditions resulted in the Masters and Servants Act being implemented which discriminated against the workers, who could be gaoled for minor revolts.
Early in the colony, skilled labours were in short supply but in the 1840's after active promotion of emigrants by Britain this improved and a depression forced wages down and jobs were lost. With the discovery of gold, prices and wages rose, labour was scare and licenses imposed on miners and the Eureka incident occurred. Bust and boom economic conditions paroled surges recessions for unionism over the next few decades.
The industrial union formed in the 1880's as a grouping of workers within an industry and across colonial and the Shearer's Union and small bush workers unions became the Australian Workers Union. Unions then looked to represent workers in Governments and the 1890's major strikes were held and the Labour Party was formed.
With coming of Federation compulsory arbitration - settling of disputes between employer and employee by a third party - encouraged unionism, with unions representing the workers. The labour market and demand for goods has been influenced by world wars, depressions and recessions. In the 1980's 'national reconciliation' initiated by the Government, aimed at resolving some of the conflict between workers and employers.
Strong leaders among workers of various occupations over the last two centuries, have been gaoled, sometimes killed, starved, abused, seen their families suffer for better working conditions.
At the beginning of the industrial revolution, employers knew their workers and felt responsible for them. After the industrial revolution gained momentum they employed more people and lost empathy for their staff.
Working conditions were 12 - 14 hours, without breaks, child labour was employed, accidents were rife and wages were low. Overcrowding in unsanitary conditions resulted in epidemics of disease. Workers were not allowed to vote and the employers were represented in Parliament.
Unions mobilize the full industrial strength of workers and as history has shown conditions of workers have greatly improved due to unionism. Unions have earned workers minimal wages forty hour working week, an eight hour day, annual leave, long service leave, accident and illness benefits, and workers compensation.
Voting rights have assisted better legislation to protect workers which decrease the relevance of unions in today's society. Compulsory unionism has a contention issue as has non secret voting or ballots. Compulsory unionism has been negated to some degree but after employment clauses state that preference will be given to union members.
In today's workplace the same worker may be eligible to belong to various unions. Sometimes these unions are in conflict and may vie with each other for members. Some workers feel the benefits do not justify the cost of union membership.
Harassment of no union workers can be intimidating even violent, as in the example in Canberra a few years ago when union members trashed property. Pickets to prevent no union workers from fulfilling contracts has been a part of strikes. The use of 'scab' labour has caused violence in strikes and the conflict has disrupted companies and industries.
State and Federal governments have been involved in labour reforms and during the last few decades industrial unrest has been lessened as the arbitration and negotiation machinery had become more sophisticated. Fines imposed on unions and more accountability for unrest and strikes on union leadership has tended to moderate demands made by workers.
Workplace reform has improved safety conditions for workers and accountability of directors and employers. As the change from external inspectors to 'duty of care' of employers and co-workers increase the role