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What the Labor Council of NSW has done well

By Peter Lewis - posted Monday, 2 December 2002

A Capital Idea?

The trade union’s hierarchy will travel to Melbourne to celebrate the ACTU’s 75th Anniversary next week; a journey that says much about where our peak body has come from and even more about where it should go now.

Those 75 years have spanned a World War, a Depression, a long, lean period in Opposition, two decades in ascendency where it seemed for a time the ACTU was part of the Executive and now another term in the political wilderness.


It survived the Depression, the Split and the Cold War, creating an egalitarian Australian society and produced our longest-serving Labor Prime Minister.

Along the way its achievements have been significant: a 40-hour week, basic wages, leave entitlements, equal pay, superannuation, redundancy rights and the recognition of indigenous Australians.

But there have also been defeats, none more so than the way the movement managed to lose half its base at the very point where its political influence was at its greatest.

There’s been another dynamic underpinning the ACTU’s lifespan that reflects the broader tensions in the Australian polity between the States and Canberra.

Like the Federal Parliament, it was actually state bodies that established the ACTU, principally the Labor Council of NSW recognising the need for a unified voice for the new nation.

It’s folklore that the Labor Council established the ACTU in Melbourne because if it succeeded it would be far enough away and if it failed it would be far enough away.


As Australia’s Federation has strengthened, so has the ACTU’s profile as the focal point of the entire union movement; until the Accord era where the man at the peak of the apex sat down with the Prime Minister to determine the wages and conditions of a nation.

But herein lies the ACTU’s challenge, in an era when industrial relations has been devolved to the workplace, how can a peak national body ever be responsive to the needs of individual workers?

At it’s best the ACTU is at the cutting edge of the national political debate, leading the charge on contemporary issues like paid maternity leave and reasonable working hours.

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About the Author

Peter Lewis is the director of Essential Media Communications, a company that runs strategic campaigns for unions, environmental groups and other “progressive” organisations.

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