Our Proud Past
The CFMEU – A Brief History
The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) of Victoria has a long and rich history dating back to the 1850s.
The CFMEU’s history draws on the contributions of the many unions that have amalgamated to create its present structure and the broad range of professions that hold membership.
After a false start in 1850 (ATUA, 2002), the first union for Victorian stonemasons was established as the Independent Society of Operative Stonemasons of Victoria.
The Victorian Stonemasons will be remembered for their laying down of tools at Melbourne University to mark the win of the eight-hour day. While legislation was already being incrementally instituted, the Stonemasons lead the celebrations. On the 21 April 1856, stonemasons working at the University marched through the streets of Melbourne, gathering fellow tradesmen on-route to what was then the Australian Parliament (Smith, 2006). Gaining the eight-hour day was a world first, that became an important symbol of workers collective strength (www.8hourday.org.au).
Whilst undergoing several name changes, the stonemason’s maintained an independent union until 1991 when changing construction methods forced their deregistration and amalgamation with the CFMEU (ATUA, 2002).
Building Workers Industrial Union.
The Building Workers’ Industrial Union (BWIU) was formed out of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (ASCJ), as a branch of what was then an English Union (ATUA, 2002). They registered federally in 1911, and saw a great leap in membership in 1922 when a competing Carpenters and Joiners union was deregistered (ATUA, 2002).
As World War Two drew to a close, ASCJ became the Building Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia (ATUA, 2002), however it didn’t take long for the BWIU to be deregistered by the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration the due to its communist connections in 1948 (Singleton, 1997: 298). They did not regain registration until 1963.
The Union was largely Leninist, which aggravated those in the Union who had more Maoist leanings. During the 1950s as the split within the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was occurring, the BWIU followed suit. A breakaway group reformed as the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (ASCJ) declared they opposed communism and aligned with the conservative Democratic Labor Party, while the remaining BWIU stayed with the leftist-ALP. The ASCJ later amalgamated itself with the Australian Workers Union (Singleton, 1997: 298).
Having re-registered and gained sufficient legitimacy, the BWIU led the 1975 campaign to achieve a National Building and Construction Award in March 1975 that replaced 30 State Awards, and saw consolidation of the wages and conditions fought for by every State.
The BWIU amalgamated in 1991 with the CFMEU, reaching its long attested goal of One Big Union.
Having been active in Melbourne since 1856 and supported the campaign for an eight-hour day, Victorian builder’s labourers joined to create a federal union in 1911, aptly titled the Australian Builders Labourers Federation (BLF).
As a politically active union, (what Liz Ross call’s 'the most effective industrial fighting machine in Australia' (2004: 140)) the BLF made significant gains in wages and working hours for its membership, as well as instituting many progressive policies such as ‘green bans, the permanency scheme, workers' control, encouraging women to work in the industry and limited tenure of office' (Ross, 2004: 168).
In 1972, it was renamed the Australian Building Construction Employees' & Builders' Labourers' Federation, before being deregistered in 1974 under the Whitlam Labor government. It was re-registered in 1974, but permanently lost its registration in 1986, through legislation changes of the Hawke Labor government (Singleton, 1997: 298).
Members of the Australian Building Construction Employees' & Builders' Labourers' Federation voted to amalgamate with the CFMEU in 1992.
Victorian Fibrous Plasterers Union
The Victorian Fibrous Plasterers Association, a relatively small union comprised of both skilled tradesmen and apprentices, was established in 1908.
During the unions 70 year history as a separate Victorian plasterers union, it had several name changes from the original Victorian Fibrous Plasterers Association, to the Victorian Fibrous Plasterers Union, the Victorian Fibrous Plasterers’ and Plaster Workers Union and finally the Victorian Plaster Industry Workers Union.
The union joined with the Victorian Operative Bricklayers Society and the Victorian Plasterers Society and formed the Victorian State Building Trades Union in 1988.
Victorian Plasterers’ Society
The Victorian Plasterers Society was established in 1906, but did not register federally until 1940.
The Union amalgamated with the Victorian Plaster Industry Workers Union and the Victorian Operative Brick Layers to form the Victorian State Building Trades Union in 1988.
Victorian Operative Bricklayers Society
The Victorian Operative Brick Layers Society was established in 1856 in time to participate in the celebrations for the eight-hour day.
Unlike their counterparts in the industry, Bricklayers never saw the need to become a legally registered union at either state or federal level until 1969, when it was registered with the Victorian Industrial Relations Commission, seeing themselves as able to rely on their skills and strong collective power to assist them through negotiations. This independence was highly unusual as most Victorian unions had registered at either state of federal level around the turn of the century (ATUA).
Bricklayers in Victoria had their own separate union for 132 years, before joining with Victoria’s two plasterers’ unions to form the Victorian State Building Trades Union in 1988. They were subsequently joined by the Slaters Tilers & Roofing Industry Union of Victoria in 1991 (ATUA, 2002).
When the Kennett Government dissolved the Victorian State Industrial Commission in 1991 to allow the federal government to overtake Victoria’s industrial relations system, the bricklayers, having only been registered within the state were left without coverage and became in effect a voluntary organisation. Bricklayers and plasterers’ begun joining the CFMEU in 1995 after the voluntary wind up of the Victorian State Building Trades Union.
Operative Painters and Decorators Union
Formed in Melbourne in 1886 as the Melbourne Painters and Paper-hangers Society (MPPS) to ensure for the care of sick or unemployed members, and that funerals could provided for in the event of a workplace fatality, as well as ensuring the protection of labour opportunities from unskilled craftsmen (Spierings, 1994: 2).
The MPPS registered federally as ‘the Federated House & Ship Painters Paperhangers & Decorators Employees’ Association Australasia in 1910, but reverted to their original name in 1915.
They amalgamated with the CFMEU in 1993 (ATUA, 2002).
Federated Engine Drivers & Firemans Association of Australasia
In 1893, there were two engine drivers unions covering steam engine drivers and firemen. These unions were the Engine Drivers Union the Certificated Engine Drivers Union and the Amalgamated Mining Engine Drivers Association; later to become the Amalgamated Engine Drivers Association.
The Engine Drivers Union ceased operation in 1896 with the introduction of compulsory certificates for the operation of steam plant.
The Certificated Engine Drivers Union and the Amalgamated Engine Drivers Association represented Victoria at the formation the federal FEDFA in 1907.
The work of steam engine drivers and the coverage of the FEDFA, later expanded to engines and machinery powered by the internal combustion engine, water, compressed air and electricity. This led to the FEDFA having a presence in most industries.
In 1992, the FEDFA Victorian Division amalgamated into the CFMEU – Construction and General Division. Power industry members had previously joined the CFMEU Mining & Energy Division.
- Australian Trade Union Archives, (2002) Available from: http://www.atua.org.au
- Boyd, B. (1991) Inside the BLF: A union self destructs. Ocean Press: Melbourne
- Eight Hour Day (2006) Available from http://www.8hourday.org.au/
- Hagan, J. (1977) The ACTU: a Short History, Reed Press: Sydney.
- Kimber J. & Love P. (2007) ‘The Time of Their Lives’ in J. Kimber & P. Love (eds) The Time of Their Lives: The Eight Hour Day and Working Life, Australian Society for the Study of labour History: Melbourne. Pp. 1-14.
- McDonald, M. (2005) FEDFA: A Victorian Branch History 1907-2005
- Ross, L. (2004) Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!: Builders Labourers Fight Deregistration, 1981-94 , The Vulgar Press: Carlton North
- Scalmer, S. (2006) The Little History of Australian Unionism, The Vulgar Press: Carlton North.
- Smith, K. (2006) ‘Display of armour celebrates workers’ eight-hour day victory’ [Press Release, January 31 2006], University of Melbourne. Accessed 16 May 2008 from http://uninews.unimelb.edu.au/articleid_3120.html
- Singleton, G. (1997) Book Review of `On Strong Foundations: The BWIU and Industrial Relations in the Australian Construction Industry 1942-1992,' by G. Mitchell in Australian Journal of Political Science; July 1997, Vol. 32 Issue 2, Pp298-230.
- Spierings, J. (1994) A Brush with History: The Painter’s Union and the Australian Labour Movement, Hyland House Publishing: South Melbourne.
Warm thanks are due to Malcolm McDonald for his assistance in the writing and researching of this history.
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