Seamen's Union of Australia

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Full name Seamen's Union of Australia
Founded 1890 (current name adopted 1906)
Date dissolved 1993
Merged into Maritime Union of Australia
Key people E. V. Elliott, Tom Walsh.
Country Australia

The Seamen's Union of Australia was the principal trade union for merchant seamen in Australia from 1876 to the 1991.[1]



Australian seamen were forerunners of maritime trade unionism. Efforts to form trade unions amongst merchant seamen trading out of Australian ports can be traced back to 1874, with the formation of the Sydney Seamen's Union and Melbourne Seamen's Union.[1] The trade unions of this period inspired, amongst others, J. Havelock Wilson of the British National Union of Seamen, who served on Australian coasting vessels for a period in the late 1870s.

By 1890, a number of these unions had come together to form a loose federation called the Federated Seamen's Union of Australasia, which included New Zealand until Australia became a nation in 1901, and was called the Seamen's Union of Australia (SUA) from 1906 onwards. For nearly eighty years the SUA successfully improved the wages and conditions of its members by negotiations with employers and governments or by taking militant industrial action.


In the period following the First World War the Seamen's Union gained a reputation as a militant union, under the leadership of socialist-inclined Tom Walsh. During the Second World War it was instrumental in ensuring the supply of civilian seafarers for the war effort.

The SUA also took part in a wide range of social and political issues over the years, for example campaigning for Aboriginal rights, opposing apartheid in South Africa, opposing the Vietnam War, and participating in the nuclear disarmament movement.[2] The union's longest serving leader was Eliot V. Elliott who led the SUA from 1941-1978.

During the 1970s and 80s the union was strongly active in campaigns to address the decline of the Australian shipping industry, as alternative transport modes became more prevalent, and shipowners used flag of convenience ships to reduce costs.[2] Reduced manning levels aboard ships also negatively impacted union members, and the union negotiated with companies to maintain the job security of Australian maritime workers.[2]


During its long history the SUA underwent several amalgamations to increase its coverage of maritime workers, particularly as the size of the workforce decreased due to automation and the use of flag of convenience vessels. The Marine Cooks Bakers and Butchers Association (formed in 1908) amalgamated with the Seamen's Union of Australia in 1983, and the Federated Marine Stewards and Pantrymen's Association merged in 1988. In 1991 the Professional Divers' Association also amalgamated with the S.U.A., shortly before it joined with the Waterside Workers' Federation to become the Maritime Union of Australia (M.U.A.).[1]

Further reading[edit]

  • Cahill, Rowan, Sea Change: An Essay In Maritime Labour History, Bowral, 1988.
  • Fitzpatrick, Brian and Rowan J. Cahill, The Seamen's Union of Australia 1872-1972: A History,, Sydney: Seamen's Union of Australia, 1981. ISBN 0959871306.
  • Kirkpatrick, Diane, Voices From the Ships: Australia's Seafarers and their Union, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2008. ISBN 9780868409023.


  1. ^ a b c Smith, Bruce A. created 20 April 2001, last modified 6 August 2010. Trade Union Entry: Seamens Union of Australia. "". Australian Trade Union Archives. Retrieved 24 September 2011.
  2. ^ a b c Huntley, Pat. (1985). "Inside Australia's Top 100 Trade Unions". Northbridge:Ian Huntley Pty. Ltd. ISBN 0-9589527-01