Australian Unions win Maternity Leave – 1979

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Trade unions have a long and proud history of campaigning for parental leave to support working families.

Before the 1970s there was no single general standard of maternity or paternity leave.

In 1973, union advocacy spurred the Whitlam Labor Government to introduce three-months paid maternity leave for federal public servants.

ACTU Test Case

In 1979, the ACTU brought a test case to the Arbitration Commission which led to the introduction of 52 weeks maternity leave. This was highly controversial at the time and was opposed by many employers and conservative groups. Some historians have even labelled it: ‘one of the most divisive test cases ever taken to the Arbitration Commission’.

The ACTU’s case was argued for by ACTU Advocate, Jan Marsh. Jan worked closely with the ACTU’s small research team at the time to prepare the case. Jan has said, ‘It was very much a team effort’

Jan Marsh argued for a guaranteed leave period that would protect pregnant workers and recent mothers from discrimination by their employers.

There was a concern at the time that if individual employers were responsible for paying maternity leave, that this would result in even greater discrimination against women in the workforce. ACTU policy at the time stated that it should be a government responsibility to provide funded support for mothers (expanded since to all parents).

The Commission’s ultimate decision was for 52 weeks of unpaid leave, a decision that applied to 1. 5 million women workers.

This was an important advance, enshrining new protections for women workers who were pregnant or had recently given birth. But it meant the campaign for government-paid guaranteed leave continued.

Later reflecting on this case, Jan Marsh said:

“We had a better chance taking it one step at a time … It was quite controversial but the argument for unpaid leave was the first step.

“I would have expected paid maternity leave to have been more widespread (now) given that it was first raised 30 years ago, notwithstanding the source of the payment.”

Major Milestones

Major milestones of the union campaign since 1979 have included:

‒                         1985: this right to a leave period was extended to adopted mothers.

‒                         1990: this right to a leave period was extended to fathers, creating parental leave.

‒                         2001: casual workers were able to access this right after a union-led submission to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

Unions were relentless advocates for the paid parental leave that was implemented in 2011. This included leading a community campaign to harness the massive amount of support for the scheme.

In under a month, right before the Senate was due to vote on the Bill, over 25,000 people signed the petition to support the scheme in a sign of the mass support that existed.

These changes came because of working people, organised in their unions, campaigning tirelessly for them.

These changes were not easy, and took decades to realise. This is often the case. But when you are in a union you are part of a community, you know that someone will always have your back, and you are not alone.

This was vital in the struggle for working families to have decent rights to time with their families.

And the campaign continues!

Australian unions know that for many of us, bringing a child into the world will be one of the most significant moments in our lives. We deserve the right to experience and savour these moments while being free to support our partners without the fear of financial hardship or loss of work.

That’s why members of Australian Unions are fighting for change. Within the next five years, we want to legislate a paid parental leave scheme that:

Provides 52 weeks paid leave at full wage replacement with equal access for both parents

Removes the concept of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carers and lets parents share entitlements as they see fit

Gives a bonus of two weeks paid leave to parents who take equal amounts of leave to share the caregiving duties.

Explore Further

Find out more – We’re taking action for fairer paid parental leave, Australian Unions.


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