Railwaymen and Transport Workers

Railwaymen and Transport Workers

Although now largely represented by the Transport Workers Union of Australia and the Rail Tram and Bus Union, during the early 1900s, transport workers were represented under the banners of a number of different specialised unions.

The Transport Workers’ Union of Australia and its predecessors

One of the pioneer transport unions was the Trolley, Draymen and Carters’ Union, which first formed in Sydney in 1888. Despite a promising start, the 1890s were challenging for the union, particularly due to their role in shearers’ and maritime strikes, in which they stood against the use of non-union or ‘scab’ labour. By the late 1890s the union had disintegrated.

The early 1900s saw state road transport unions re-emerging, with one of the highest profile being the Sydney Trolley and Draymens’ Union led by future Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes. The growth in the transport sector provided additional stimulus for carters' unions to reorganise themselves to make them a stronger force. This led to the federal registration of the Federated Carters' and Drivers' Industrial Union (FCDIU) under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act in 1906. However the states jockeyed for power and although a federal union by name, the union remained focused on state-based issues by nature. 

The advent of motorised transport had a significant impact on the industry and saw other unions emerge such as the Motor Transport & Chauffers Association. In 1925, representatives of the Federated Carters' and Drivers' Industrial Union, the Trolley Draymen and Carters' Union and the Motor Transport and Chauffeurs' Association met to plan the establishment of a new union to represent all persons employed in connection with the transport of people or goods by road. The Amalgamated Road Transport Workers' Union was federally registered in 1928 (though the Motor Transport and Chauffeurs' Association withdrew beforehand) and ten years later it changed its name to the Transport Workers' Union of Australia.

By 1947 the carters and drivers industry had become virtually obsolete and the union was forced to deregister. Most of its members however, who remained in the general transport industry, went on to join the Transport Workers' Union of Australia.

By the end of 1987 the Transport Workers' Union had amalgamated with the Motor Transport and Chauffeurs' Association and retained the same name.

The Rail Tram and Bus Union and its predecessors

The Rail Tram & Bus Union was created in 1993 by the amalgamation of the Australian Railways Union (ARU), Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen (AFULE), National Union of Railway Workers of Australia (NURWA) and Amalgamated Tramways and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association (ATMOEA), however its roots go back to 1861 with the formation of the Locomotive Engine Drivers’ Association in Victoria.

In the early 1900s, transport unions were central to a number of significant strikes including the 1917 Australian General Strike (otherwise known as The Great Strike), which is still regarded as one of Australia’s largest industrial conflicts. This strike began in August 1917 when almost 6,000 rail and tramway workers, mostly from the Eveleigh Railway Workshop and Randwick Tramway Workshop in Sydney, called a strike to protest against the introduction of a new time card system which they saw as an attack on their work and principles. One of the leading figures of the strike was future Prime Minister Joseph (Ben) Chifley, a railway engine driver from Bathurst. The strike ultimately involved over 77,000 workers, a quarter of whom were rail and tram workers. This six week strike had a huge impact on railway and tramway workers, many of whom were never reinstated or found their jobs downgraded.

The National Union of Railwaymen of Australia (NUR) was first registered in March 1933 but had been de-registered by July 1933. Many members of this original union were eventually covered by a second union of the same name, which registered on 7 December 1938.

The NUR amalgamated with the Government Railways Transport Staff Association in 1938, with the Department of Main Roads Employees' Union in 1942 and the Government Tramway Electrical Branch Workers' Association around 1944-45. The Union continued under this name until 1982 when it changed to the National Union of Rail Workers of Australia (NURWA).

In 1993 the NURWA amalgamated with the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen, the Australian Tramway & Motor Omnibus Employees' Association and the Australian Railways Union to form the Australian Rail Tram and Bus Industry Union. This brought together railway workers and government bus and tram workers across the country. In 1998 it changed its name to the Rail Tram & Bus Union. 

The Noel Butlin Archives Centre holds numerous deposits of various transport unions including the Transport Workers’ Union, Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen, Australian Railways Union, National Union of Rail Workers of Australia, Australian Rail Tram and Bus Industry Union and a number of smaller transport unions. These records cover each state in Australia and range from the mid-1800s to the 1990s.   


Bowden, B 1993, Driving force. The history of the Transport Workers’ Union of Australia 1883-1992, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.

Ellmoos, L 2018, Great Strike of 1917, <https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/great_strike_of_1917>

Transport Workers’ Union 2017, Our history. The birth of an organising union, <https://twunsw.org.au/our-history