History of the CFMEU
A BRIEF OVERVIEW
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) is the result of the amalgamation of several unions. The way the CFMEU is set up, each industrial sector (construction, forestry, mining and energy) has an autonomous State division. So, for example, there is a Queensland Construction & General Division, a Labourers Division and a Mining Division. The Queensland Construction Division is the product of the amalgamation of three Unions: the Building Workers’ Industrial Union (BWIU), the Operative Painters and Decorators’ Union (OPDU) and the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA). Each of these unions has a long and proud history.
The BWIU was the product of an older union – the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners which was founded in Britain in 1860 and which set up in Queensland in 1863. The BWIU was formed in 1942. From its inception, the BWIU worked towards creating one building union in Australia. This brought it into conflict with employers and State and Federal governments who were afraid of the power that a single building union would have. In 1948 the union’s enemies succeeded in having it deregistered Federally and it was not until 1962 that it was re-registered.
By the 1980s, the BWIU had become one of Australia’s largest unions, and one of the most successful. During its lifetime, it won such entitlements for members as accident pay, sick leave, compassionate leave, holiday pay, paid public holidays, a wet weather allowance, a multistorey allowance, technical training for apprentices, portable long service leave, and a national superannuation scheme for building workers.
The OPDU started off in 1919. But its origins, like those of the BWIU and FEDFA, can be traced much further back, to the 1850s. Throughout its existence the OPDU was consumed with two major issues, the 40 hour week and lead in paints. The OPDU was one of the first unions in the country to campaign for the introduction of the 40 hour week. In those days, workers worked six days a week, including Saturdays. The OPDU wanted to reduce working hours because it wanted to reduce the amount of time that members were exposed to the toxic substances, even then, were known to be in paints. It was thanks mainly to the OPDU that Queensland workers won the 40 hour week in 1936 – some 12 years before the rest of the nation.
The other big issue the OPDU campaigned on was the banning of lead in paints. In the 1920s an average of 29 painters a year were dying in Australia of lead poisoning. It took until 1956, when the Queensland Government introduced legislation, for governments to be convinced of the dangers of lead in paints.
The FEDFA evolved out of the era when steam was used to power all sorts of machinery, from steam shovels to steam cranes. It was the first Craft Union in Australia to be registered under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1904. After the Second World War, the expansion of industry and the introduction of a wider range of mechanical equipment, such as fork lifts, tow motors and mobile cranes, saw the union grow. Its coverage extended into the pulp and paper industry, shipyards, local councils, building and civil construction, breweries, sugar, coal mining and electricity industries.
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