Trade unionism dates back to the mid-1800s in Australia, with the formation of trade unions representing builders, stonemasons, miners and printers, amongst others. In 1872, the first trade unions were formed to represent Australian maritime workers, with Australia being the first country in the world to form a maritime union.
In September 1872, the first formal trade unions were formed to represent Australian seamen and wharf labourers. With the shipping industry and the trade in wool, wheat and coal booming across Australia, and growing exports to Europe, it was timely for seamen and wharf labourers to establish formal unions to advocate for these workers, particularly the casual workers that were employed by shipowners. The work was physically taxing and the hours could be long and unreliable.
Struggle, Solidarity and Unity: 150 Years of Maritime Unions in Australia explores the rich history of Australia’s maritime unions, drawing from our extensive collections of records from the Seamen’s Union of Australia, Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia, Maritime Union of Australia, and affiliated trade unions. The exhibition highlights some of the key events, campaigns and personalities from the unions’ past 150 years.