Unions are all about getting a better deal for employees. By working together, workers have found that they can make a big difference. Here are some of the improvements that unions have helped win for workers.


Back in the mid 1800s, it was common to work a 12 or 16 hour day, six days a week. The stonemasons' union took a stand and won the now famous eight hour day; eight hours work, eight hours rest, and eight hours play. This eight hour day was recognised internationally and over 150 years later is still considered to be a standard working day.

Later unions pressed for a shorter working week and won the 38 hour week - which is now the most common working hours for a full-time job.

The 40 hour week adopted in January 1948. The 1983 national wage case reduced this to 38 hours and in 2002 an ACTU test case won the right for workers to refuse unreasonable overtime.

The 36  hour week

One of the major achievements of the CWU and its members was winning the 36  hour week for all employees in Telstra and Australia Post.

In the 1970s, before postal and telecommunications operations were put into two separate corporations, most employees of the then Australian Post Office (APO) worked a 40 hour week. Clerical and engineering grades worked 36  hours but "physical and technical" grades -to which most CWU members belonged - worked more.

Beginning in 1974, the then Postal Telecommunications Technicians Association (PTTA), a predecessor of the CWU, initiated a campaign to win the shorter hours for its members. With Labor Government support a joint APO/PTTA Working Party was set up with the aim of identifying productivity improvements which would off-set the reduction in working hours.?A Memorandum of Understanding between the APO and PTTA was signed in early-1975 but the split of the APO into the Australian Postal Commission (APC) and Australian Telecommunications Commission (ATC) on 1 July that year slowed progress. It was only after the PTTA geared up for industrial action in October that year that the ATC agreed to the shorter hours proposal.

The PTTA Award -the Telecommunications Technical and Trades Staff (Salaries and Specific Conditions) Award - was varied in December 1975 to make the 36  hour week and 9 day fortnight an entitlement for PTTA members in the ATC. In March the same conditions were won for PTTA members in the Australian Postal Commission.

Over the following months, the other unions with members in the two corporations, including other predecessors of the CWU, argued successfully for the introduction of the 36  hour week for their members as well.

CWU members thus joined the very small number of Australian workers who have, to this day, enjoyed this shorter working week.


There is a fair pay rate for every job thanks to unions. Back in 1907, unions argued that wages needed to be enough to support a family, and won - this was called the Harvester judgement. Since then, unions have helped win increases to the minimum wage and award wages that give everybody a fair go.

Overtime, penalty rates, meal allowances or holiday pay are all examples of improvements won by unions.?Indexed to inflation during the 1970s. The Accord from 1983 to 1996 improved the social wage by raising the living standards of working people through Medicare, welfare, family payments and housing. In 1997, the Living Wage determined award minimum rates of pay. Since that time the ACTU has won a $100 increase in the minimum wage a 10 per cent increase in real terms. In May 2004 the ACTU won a $19 a week increase and sought a $26.60 a week pay rise in 2005.

Annual leave

It's hard to believe, but not so long ago (only about 50 years ago) full-time workers were only given two weeks paid annual leave. In the years since, unions have rallied and worked hard to ensure that all full-time workers receive four weeks paid annual leave. It is because of unions that we also receive sick leave and many receive paid parental leave.

The right to one week paid annual leave was granted in 1941, along with sick leave. By 1970, annual leave had been extended to four weeks. Long service leave was adopted in 1953.

Postal deregulation

The long fight against postal deregulation was another major win for the CWU. Postal deregulation would have slashed jobs and services across the country.

In 2001, the Howard Coalition Government abandoned its 4 year fight to deregulate Australia's postal service in the face of a CWU campaign.

The CWU campaign - involving community organisations, rural and regional stakeholders and broad political support - exposed the drastic negative impacts of postal deregulation for the Australian public and the CWU membership. The resulting loss of services and jobs, a well as increased costs, would have undermined the future operations and viability of Australia Post. Over 70,000 signatures were presented to parliament on the campaign's community petition.?A major setback for the forces supporting deregulation and privatisation in Australia and overseas, this represented a major win for communication workers and the community.

Maternity leave

Unpaid maternity leave was granted in 1971 and now stands at one year. A long-standing ACTU campaign for 14 weeks paid maternity leave has finally paid off with the Federal Government now providing all new mothers with a payment of up to $5000 on the birth of a child.?In 2005, the ACTU was successful in its Work and Family Test Case resulting in the AIRC awarding that employees covered by awards should have a 'right to request' work/family benefits from their employer.

The benefits included extending simultaneous unpaid parental leave of two parents in one family of up to eight weeks; extending unpaid parental leave by up to 12 months, giving a potential total of 24 months unpaid parental leave; and returning from parental leave to part-time employment until the child reaches school age.

The employer is required to consider the request and only refuse on 'reasonable grounds' due to the effect on the workplace or business.

Around one-fifth of awards had incorporated these changes at the time of the 2006 introduction of WorkChoices by the Coalition Government - which stopped any further extension of the test case.?Following a push by unions, the Rudd Labor Government announced a new parental leave scheme providing 26 weeks paid leave to commence in 2011.

Unions are continuing in their push to provide workers with improved paid leave for "pregnancy, childbirth, bonding and breastfeeding" and to broaden the entitlements in the private sector, while pursuing further improvements with the Government.

Equal pay for women

Until 1969, it was the law that women working the same job as men earned 25 per cent less. On top of this, women in many jobs were expected to resign from their jobs once they got married. Since 1969, campaigns by unions have contributed to women being gradually granted equal privileges to men; that is, they are paid an equal pay for an equal amount work.

By 1974 all women were finally entitled to equal pay for work of equal value, although women still earn less than men statistically.


Superannuation is money saved for you to spend after you retire from work. Unions argued that everyone should be able to have superannuation and that most of the money should be paid by the boss. Now it's the law that employers pay an extra nine per cent above your wages into the super fund of your choice.

The 1986 National Wage Case won 3 per cent universal super for all award workers. Compulsory super has since risen to 9 per cent through the Super Guarantee charge.

Redundancy payments

A 1984 test case established eight weeks' severance pay as an award right for sacked workers. A 2004 test case achieved a doubling of this entitlement to 16 weeks redundancy pay and the extension of redundancy pay to small business employees.

Safer work

Unions and union members are a big part of making work safer. Over the years they have won many changes that keep workers safe and healthy. Regulatory improvements - such as the establishment of workers compensation authorities - have only been established after long union campaigns and in the face of employer opposition. Unions have spearheaded moves to fairly compensate people who are hurt at work or damaged by unhealthy things like asbestos. But with over 300 work-related deaths every year, there's a lot more to be done.

Source: ACTU