Resource Type

The Labour Movement and Trade Unions

  • History
  • Society and Culture
  • Unit 2: Movements for Change in the 20th century
  • Unit 3: Modern Nations in the 20th century
  • Unit 4: The Modern World since 1945

The Labour Movement and Trade Unions

Working conditions in the early days of colonisation in Australia were nothing like they are today. Most people worked 12 hours a day and often seven days a week. Manual labour of all kinds was back-breaking and took place in harsh conditions and without any of the health and safety measures that we take for granted. Wages were poor and as a result children of the labouring classes were required to begin working at an extremely young age.

South Australia became the first territory in the British Empire, excluding Britain, to legalise trade unions, with the introduction of the Trade Union Act 1876. So many of the things we take for granted and that are now enshrined in law were fought hard for and secured by trade unions. Unions continue to play an important role in maintaining the gains that have been made for Australian workers over the last couple of centuries.

The Labour Movement and Trade Unions



Year 10


AC9HH10K07 – the effects of significant post–World War II world events, ideas and developments on Australian society

AC9HH10K08 – the causes of changes in perspectives, responses, beliefs and values on migration that have influenced Australian society since 1945

AC9HH10K12 – the significant events, individuals and groups in the women’s movement in Australia, and how they have changed the role and status of women

AC9HH10K16 – causes and effects of the significant events and developments of the major global influences on Australia in the post-World War II period

AC9HH10K17 – changing social, political, economic, cultural, environmental and technological conditions, and the causes of a major global influence in Australia

AC9HH10K18 – continuities and changes in perspectives, responses, beliefs and values that have influenced the Australian way of life


Modern History

Society and Culture

Women’s Studies

Discussion Questions

What do you think is the most important achievement of the Trade Union Movement to date?

Why do you think union membership has fallen so much in recent years?

Do trade unions still serve a purpose in modern society?

First Nations people did not receive a guaranteed minimum wage at the same time as white men in Australia, nor did women. Consider what voices were present in the early Trade Union Movement, and what perspectives were missing.

Union workers often wore badges. Why do you think people would have wanted a badge to identify themselves as a union member?


Use this video in conjunction with the “Social Movements in South Australia: a Guide for Teachers” to get the most out of your learning

Social Movements in South Australia

Where to Next?

To learn more about the Labour Movement and Trade Unions visit

Visit the Centre of Democracy


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