What’s a union?

We know this isn’t the sexiest topic in the world, but it’s important to know, so stick with us. Whether you’re part of a union or know someone that is, they are a pretty big part of Australian life. In fact, almost two million workers in Australia are members of their industry’s union. Let’s take a look at what unions are and how they came about.

What exactly is a union? 
It’s an organisation where workers come together to work towards a common goal. The association of workers is formed to mostly protect their rights and interests. According to Fairwork Australia, some of these include: 

  • Working with management to help resolve workplace issues
  • Being an advocate for employees
  • Ensuring employers are meeting their minimum obligations
  • Looking into suspected breaches of: workplace laws, discrimination laws, and workplace safety laws.

What are some examples of unions in Australia? 
We have a lot of unions here, but some that you might be aware of are: 

  • Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union
  • Transport Workers’ Union of Australia
  • Australian Workers’ Union
  • Community and Public Sector Union

Plus many, many more.

The Labor Party and unions 
The Labor Party, Australia’s oldest political party, was formed by trade unions. To this day, the Labor Party continues to be closely and intimately linked to a number of trade unions. 

The word ‘Labor’ comes from labour, which comes out of the labour movement — where unions come from. Most Labor politicians are backed by and remain active members of unions while in Parliament. Many rise the ranks in unions before starting their parliamentary careers. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke is a good example of this. He was the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions before entering politics. 

Unions play a significant role in influencing the policy platform of the Labor Party. According to The Conversation, “Affiliated unions account for 50% of delegates at federal and state party conferences that determine policy. This was reduced from 60% in 2003, but it remains a focal point for those wishing to reduce union influence in the party”.

Why do some people like unions but others don’t? 
We’ll make some general arguments: 


  • As we stated earlier, to receive better wages and working conditions 
  • Offers protection of workers’ rights and interests  
  • Helps resolve workplace issues 
  • Act as a lobbying group to represent workers to politicians 

Companies, or people who are against the union movement can be against unions for a variety of reasons – we’ve listed out the main arguments below: 

  • The higher cost to employers: Unions fight for fairer wages (more expensive), meaning companies have to pay those higher wages (less profit) 
  • The power: As mentioned above, unions play a significant role in Labor politics. The influence is considered by some to be outsized
  • There was also a Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, where the Commissioner said he had found evidence of corruption 

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