Australia’s First Nation-wide Union Meeting and the Foundation of the Australian Council of Trade Unions ACTU

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The first nation-wide meeting of unions in Australia took place in October 1879.

It was called the Intercolonial Trade Union Congress, and the gathering took place at the Mechanics School of Arts in Sydney.

More than twenty years before Australia would Federate into the country we know today, this was the first attempt to draw trade unionists from across the colonies together to present a single voice in industrial and political matters.

This was a time when New South Wales and Victoria imposed tariffs on each other, and famously, trains ran on different gauges on each side of colonial borders.

The vast distances participants had to travel and the disconnect between the colonies was demonstrated at the meeting.

The 39 delegates who gathered were predominantly from New South Wales, a fact that delegates sheepishly acknowledged.

But the intention to draw the trade union movement together as an Australia-wide force was clearly expressed at this meeting and put into effect in following years.

At the insistence of the delegates at the 1879 meeting, subsequent Intercolonial Congresses were held over the next decade, being replaced by ‘All-Australian Trade Union Congresses’ on important matters after Federation.

In 1927 it was decided that regular conferences would not be enough and a peak body for the national trade union movement would need to be formed. This was the foundation of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.