Our Proud Past

The roots of unionism in the Australian building and construction industries go back to the mid 1800s. And from the beginning of European settlement of Australia, the building industry has played a key role in the industrial and economic development of the nation.

The colony's needs for permanent housing, roads, bridges and public buildings created a demand for building labour. And building workers were among the first to form trade unions to fight collectively for better wages and conditions.

Although the penal nature of the new colony, with its harsh conditions and military rules, did not permit the development of trade unionism, workers began combining into trade unions and taking political action from the 1820s.

By 1850, there were about 25 unions in Sydney, 13 in Hobart, as well as smaller numbers in Melbourne and Adelaide.

From the start, building and construction unions have had a strong and militant foundation of fighting for better wages and conditions. And the CFMEU has lead the way.

For well over 100 years the building unions - now combined together in the CFMEU - have felt that it was the union's duty to both show a political lead and to help in the broader struggle for a better world. The union always believed in Australia's capacity to be a caring, equitable and socially just society. And it saw its role as ensuring that the country's decision-makers heard the views and concerns of the working class.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, building unions opposed Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, were bitter opponents of nuclear weapons and their testing, supported civil rights and land rights for Indigenous Australians, promoted environmental issues and heritage protection, and supported student and community groups across the whole spectrum of social issues including education, health, welfare and housing.

The CFMEU is not just a workers' organisation but an integral part of the campaign for a just and more equal society. It is a proud tradition that dates from the early days of the building unions and one we are determined to continue.


Download the poster produced by CFMEU Construction as part of our national publication, Hard Hat, to mark 100 years of building workers' and their unions' achievements in fighting for better working conditions and quality of life.