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Looking back at Union victories this May Day

Leigh Shears, Hunter Workers Secretary

1 May 2024


Each year on the first of May, International Workers Day, we pause to reflect on and celebrate the rich, expansive history of the labour movement and the phenomenal advances made in improving the lives of working people.

When the very first May Day celebration was held in Wallsend in 1894, 130 years ago, most Australian workers laboured up to 14 gruelling hours a day, six days a week, lacking even the most basic conditions and rights we enjoy today.

We now have the weekend, sick leave, parental leave, annual leave, superannuation, redundancy pay, and far, far more, all thanks to the staunch, enduring struggle of Unions who fought for a better life for Australian workers.

We’ve made bounds in progress since 1894, yet the Union movement isn’t slowing down.

In just the last year since May Day 2023, a suite of legislative changes facilitated by Unions have brought about significant improvement to workers’ rights, conditions, and pay.

After fiercely campaigning for Same Job Same Pay, Unions finally won the fight to close a loophole employers used to sidestep enterprise agreements and pay labour hire workers less than employees performing the same work.

The right for employees to disconnect was enshrined in law, allowing workers to refuse unreasonable work communications in unpaid personal time without fear of punishment.

After a decade-long campaign led by passionate Union activists, 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave were granted to all workers, with protection against discrimination for those facing FDV in the workplace.

Industrial manslaughter was made a criminal offence federally and new rights were granted to work health and safety representatives to improve workplace access, making work safer for all. Unions will continue to fight for improved work health and safety laws and standards to ensure no worker is killed on the job, standing by the principle that every workplace death is preventable.

Wage theft was finally criminalised earlier this year, introducing harsh new penalties for employers intentionally underpaying employees. Effective in eight months, employers committing wage theft will face up to 10 years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $7.8 million.

Much needed new protections for migrant workers were introduced in an effort to end rampant exploitation. Employers exploiting migrant workers will now face tougher penalties, including up to two years in prison, a tripling of previous financial penalties, and strict restrictions to hiring.

The Union movement has also been instrumental in the ongoing campaign to close the gender pay gap.

One strategy to get closer to this goal, which has recently come to fruition thanks to Unions, is legislating transparency around gender composition and pay gaps inside workplaces to encourage reflection, accountability, and action. In February, gender pay gaps for nearly 5,000 Australian private sector employers were published for the first time.

New pay secrecy laws were finally passed last year that banned pay secrecy clauses, tearing away another barrier to gender equality. These changes ensure workers have the freedom to discuss their wages and are empowered to expose and challenge pay discrimination and inequality in the workplace.

In addition to advocating for legislative changes that improve the working lives of all Australians, Unions have achieved victories at the bargaining table that benefit hundreds of thousands of workers, such as aged care workers who will receive pay increases of up to 28.5% after the Fair Work Commission agreed they were fundamentally undervalued.

NSW teachers won the highest wage increase since the 1990’s, ending months of tense negotiations that had involved the state government walking back on an agreement. This wage increase is a win for schools across the state struggling to attract and retain quality teachers.

It is because of these gains, wages are finally moving in Australia. According to data released by the ABS in February, wages grew by 4.2% in 2023, representing the highest growth in 15 years.

Only the Union movement, through campaigning, advocacy, struggle, and solidarity, could achieve such monumental wins for Australian workers.

It is just as workers realised more than 130 years ago at the advent of the labour movement in the Hunter region: when workers unite, we have the power to instigate real change for the better.

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