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The ACTU – the Australian Council of Trade Unions – is a national organisation representing a large number of the unions in each state and territory of Australia. It was founded in May 1927 when all the State unions met and agreed that Australian workers would have a stronger voice if they had a national body working on behalf of unions around the country. The decision to form a national body was also partly a result of the Federal Government’s action against the unions, particularly the Waterside Workers Federation, in the famous ‘Dog-collar Act’.

Today, 46 unions are members of the ACTU, representing 1.8 million workers or about 20% of the Australian workforce. (Australian Bureau of Statistic, August 2006)

The State branches of the ACTU are known as Trades and Labor Councils.

The Birth of the ACTU

Organisation was the name of the game for Australia’s trade union movement in 1927. On 3 May 1927 it became a reality at the Interstate Trade Union Congress held at Melbourne Trades Hall Council.

The NSW Trades and Labor Council, Victorian Trades Hall Council and United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia put forward the concept of an ‘all Australian Council of Trade Unions’. The result? They decided to set up the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). They elected a committee of seven to set out the Council’s goals and structure.

The ACTU consisted of delegates from affiliated unions who dealt with issues that affected the whole trade union movement. In 1943 there was a push to have the ACTU based in Sydney but this was unsuccessful and it has remained in Melbourne since it was formed.



  • Visit the ACTU Worksite for Schools website and complete the quiz at Activity M
  • Use the information from the ACTU website above and from the article ‘Trade Union influence in the 1920s and 1930s, excerpt one’ at the Teaching Heritage website to complete this table and answer the questions that follow.

Trade Unions


The Present

Percentage of male workers who are members of trade unions

Percentage of female workers who are members of trade unions

Working hours per week for the average worker

Major issues which unions worked to improve on behalf of their members

Think about it

  • Can you suggest reasons for the differences or similarities between the information you have recorded in each of the columns above?
  • Which two industries in the 1920s experienced the most work stoppages as a result of strike action by union members?
  • Why did many workers in the 1920s prefer to work fewer hours than seek wage increases? Is the same true today?
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