The free trade of the Australian fair go

ETU historian Ken Purdham takes a look back through the history of our union and of industrial relations in Australia. In 2017 the big issues are the return of the ABCC and the deeply problematic Building Code, but what was firing up the passions of ETU members in decades gone?


In 1907 this great union settled on the name of ETU Victoria and at the same time a court set a basic wage as a foundation of the Australian fair go.

Justice Higgins said the test of a fair and reasonable wage was ‘the normal needs of the average employee regarded as a human being living in a civilized community’ and that wages should not be dependent on an employer’s profits. It was a safety net for working people’s wages.

Higgins also set an extra amount in what became known as a margin over and above the basic wage that recognised the skills of a trade. And as the electrical trades grew, the ETU built on that margin through the courts and within the Metal Industry Award.

Fifty years of the Contracting Industry Award

Fifty years on, in 1957, the ETU Victoria argued that electrical trades in construction had grown so much that a Contracting Industry Award was warranted to reflect their needs and give them a fair go. After a two-year campaign across three states we achieved it.

Another 50 years on, the ETU Victoria was now having to fight for the Australian fair go, maintaining skills recognition through career paths and proudly establishing shorter hours in the contracting industry when everyone else was going backwards. Labour movement academic John Buchanan said: 

In the last twenty years the most significant change that has happened has been the deterioration in the quality of hours of work … Now what is really interesting about the Victorian Branch of the ETU is that it’s confronted that issue head on and within the world there aren’t many other people who are actually lowering standard hours of work for their full-time workforce.

Fighting for our rights at work

A century on from the Higgins decision, parliament had removed the Australian fair go from the negotiating table and the fair go became a free trade. The politicians hacked the award safety net back to five basic elements and introduced WorkChoices. It removed the impartiality of a courtroom decision and replaced it with a profit-determined decision-making process.

This was confirmed when in 2007 Heinemann Electric chose to withhold its workers’ wages because they wouldn’t work overtime. Dianne, one of the workers asked, ‘I always thought you got a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work?’ Well no, said Prime Minister Howard on the floor of parliament. Not anymore.

A return to sweat shops?

When SPC asked the Abbott Government for a $25 million leg up to improve its profit margin, Abbott said the government would only help if SPC put its workers on award rates. The award as a safety net had been dropped to the ground, and the political push seemed to be to create a sweat shop environment by pushing people off EBAs and back onto the decimated award system. The CUB attempt to put its workers on an award rate plus 50 cents reinforced that philosophy.

To confirm that thinking the political decision-makers, not the courts, introduced a ‘code of practice’ into the contracting environment. This so-called code set out to do to the contracting EBA exactly what was done to awards and pare them back to a bare minimum, arguing it was to improve productivity. The ETU Victoria was able to prove that its claims for such savage cuts were false. They were based purely on profit and in no way justifiable.

The Senate, the so-called ‘house of review’, voted that code into law anyway with what I describe as ‘moral bankruptcy’. Politicians traded their vote for the code on the basis of, ‘What’s in it for me?’ rather than what’s fair and reasonable and by asking, ‘Does it fit the definition of the Australian fair go?’

Standing up for a fair go

So, as the working people of Australia face the industrial frontiers of 2017, we know what we are fighting for and who our enemy is. There is no regulation and no courts left to protect the vulnerable.

The Australian fair go should be a worker’s right: a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Yes, we know many politicians don’t see it that way, but we aren’t the mindless masses they portray us to be. As I see it, there are two directions to go: either to follow the political leaders and believe their alternative truths, or follow our own beliefs and say a fair go for all, not just the rich and powerful.

The only way to win this fight is for each and every one of us to say ‘I’m in. I’ll stand alongside you and fight.’ None of us can afford to say, ‘It’s not my fight’. If I don’t stand alongside you today who will stand alongside me tomorrow? Let’s not see it being another 50 years before Australians get a fair go again! In fact, let’s not repeat history by going back to the Masters and Servants Act of 1828, which is clearly the political thinking of 2017.

Through the decades with the ETU


    Adopted the name ETU Victoria


  1,218 financial members 


  Victorian Apprenticeship Act came into being. Two years later electrical trades proclaimed apprenticeship trades 


  ETU wins 40-hour week for Footscray council workers 


  A decade on from Footscray the rest of the workforce achieve the 40-hour week


  Began the fight for an Electrical Contractor’s Award 


  Special Class Electrician classification won in the courts and linesmen proclaimed as an apprenticeship trade 


  Footscray depot linesmen on $176.20 for a 35-hour week 


  ACTU flags its intent to amalgamate 326 separate unions down to 20 super unions, and we were one of those to be swallowed up 


  13,549 financial members 


  We asked the membership to Hold the Line and they did! 


  This is now up to us!