Transport Workers Union of Australia

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Transport Workers' Union of Australia
Full name Transport Workers' Union of Australia
Founded 1906
Members 90,000
Affiliation ACTU, ITF, ALP
Key people

Tony Sheldon, National Secretary

Michael Kaine, Assistant National Secretary
Office location Sydney, New South Wales
Country Australia

The Transport Workers' Union of Australia (TWU) is a trade union with over 90,000 members throughout Australia. It has 5 main branches in Australia

The TWU is a union based on the Organising model. It is largely progressive and militant. The TWU is affiliated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the International Transport Workers' Federation. In South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, the Union is affiliated with the Labor Right.

Industries covered by the TWU[edit]

The union has coverage throughout the many sectors of the transport industry including:

  • Road Transport (passenger and freight)
  • Aviation (ground services, catering, guest services)
  • Oil, Fuel and Gas
  • Armoured vehicle drivers, guards and staff
  • Waste industry workers
  • Forklift drivers and dock hands
  • Clerical staff in the transport industry

Whilst technically having wide coverage, the TWU largely focuses on road transport, warehouse distribution, airline operations, bus drivers and the waste industry.

The TWU's coverage of gas industry staff extends from its amalgamation with The Federated Gas Employees Industrial Union (FGEIU) in 1997. South Australia is the only state to have an extensive membership in this industry as it was the base of the FGIEU. It is the only state to have a Gas Industry Sub-branch.


19th century[edit]

Queensland Branch logo

The history of the Transport Workers Union is partly a story of the enormous technological and economic changes to the ways people and goods have been transported across the history of this country. It is also a story about how the free market cannot be relied upon to create a safe, efficient and viable transport industry. But most of all, the story of the TWU is a story about how transport workers have stood together with their workmates to better their pay and conditions. A union, is nothing more than its members, gathered together in common cause.

In the 1880s small independent unions of drivers sprung up in the various colonies of Australia. Many of these unions were short-lived. It was an extremely competitive industry. A self-employed carrier could set himself up with a basic horse and cart for a relatively small sum of money, and drivers too were in chronic oversupply. Conditions were poor with wage-earning drivers working very long hours for low rates of pay. Much of the available work was casual and seasonal.


Victoria/Tasmania Branch logo

After the turn of the century, small specialised transport unions were established throughout Australia. These included separate unions of milk carters, bread carters, and fuel and fodder carters. Numbers of wage-earning drivers increased in the major cities during this period as carrying firms grew in size stimulated by the growth in manufacturing. Wharves and railway depots were also important sources of work for drivers. By 1903 it was reported that work had become more stable and less casual. However conditions were still poor. Drivers could be expected to work up to 19 hours a day. Wages were generally between 25-35 shillings a week.

The growth in the transport sector provided a stimulus for carters' unions to reorganise themselves to make them a stronger force. This led to the Federal registration of the Federated Carters and Drivers' Industrial Union in 1906. This union is the direct predecessor of today's Transport Workers' Union of Australia.

While other parts of the economy experienced difficult times in the years from 1914–1939, rapid technological change made road transport a dynamic and rapidly expanding industry. There was an explosion in numbers of commercial motor vehicles in Australia during the 1920s. And advances in truck construction and decreasing costs made road transport a serious competitor to the railways for the first time. These changes put the Union in a stronger position to fight for shorter working hours and other improved conditions. However, the Union itself had to adapt and make the transition from the horse-drawn era to the new world of trucks and cars.

In 1925 representatives of the Federated Carters and Drivers' Industrial Union, the Trolley, Draymen and Carters' Union and the Motor Transport and Chauffeurs' Association met to plan the establishment of a new union capable of representing all persons employed in connection with the transport of people or goods by road. This led to the Amalgamated Road Transport Workers Union becoming federally registered in 1928.

Despite these attempts to create a stronger organisation, the Great Depression hit the Union hard. The Queensland Branch survived the Depression best. Yet even there, award conditions couldn't survive the pressure of mass unemployment. It was estimated that many workers had their conditions returned to those of the 1880s. In Victoria casual employment had again become the norm with gangs of men waiting outside yards all day trying to get work by the hour.


The road transport sector picked up again after the Depression. During this period the Union's strongest sector was among oil company drivers. In 1937 these drivers were the first in the Union to win a week's annual leave - benefits which flowed on to the wider membership in 1940.

In 1937 the Union was granted the right to cover persons engaged in connection with the transport of passengers or freight by air as well as by road. These members - particularly baggage handlers and porters - quickly became a key sector within the Union. Their bargaining power won improvements in pay and conditions which in turn benefited Union members in other sectors. To reflect the change in coverage, in 1938 the Union's name was changed to its current name, the Transport Workers' Union of Australia.

World War II saw major changes within the road transport industry, with acute labour shortages resulting in long hours and high wages for drivers. After the war the road transport industry was rationalised as smaller operators were forced out of the business by larger, more efficient firms. These larger companies introduced new methods of work, using specialised bulk tankers, fork lifts and pallets to lower costs and increase productivity.

The road transport industry grew strongly after the war and the sophistication and size of trucks increased. By the end of the 1960s, large articulated trucks accounted for 56% of all tonne-kilometres performed by road transport. By this time waves of takeovers had reorganised the industry with small local firms being taken over large national transport companies. By 1966 five conglomerates dominated the industry - Ansett, TNT, Mayne Nickless, Brambles and Alltrans/Comet. This rationalisation meant that the Union too had to reorganise itself into a strong federal body, capable of operating in a coordinated, national way.


In the early 1960s drivers won substantial wage increases as the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission recognised the changing nature of drivers' work and the increased skill required of drivers in the road transport industry. Heavier loads, the increased use of high powered, multi axled articulated vehicles, and the higher levels of skill and productivity required of drivers led to labour shortages and provided the opportunity for the Union to win large wage increases.

Seeking to minimise their costs, many large companies increased their use of owner drivers to avoid paying award rates of pay to employee drivers. These subcontractors, increasingly discovered they lacked the bargaining power of employee drivers. Forced to negotiate individually with the large prime contractors, they found themselves progressively squeezed throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s as operating costs rose far more than rates. For the first time since the 1880s, owner drivers joined the Union in large numbers. They had quickly found the TWU was the only serious industrial force that could stand up to the transport conglomerates.

From the early 1970s, the Union became a cohesive, centrally directed force with a substantial presence, actively recruiting members and training job delegates. The early 1980s were a time of strong gains in wages and the TWU was for a time the pacesetter, gaining higher wage increases for its members than any other union.


Ground was lost, however, as the recession of 1982-83 took hold. This downturn stimulated a major restructuring of the Australian transport industry as retailers and manufacturers turned to a system of contract distribution rather than maintain their own truck fleets or engage owner drivers. Contract distribution involved total responsibility for the pick up, warehousing, distribution and delivery of goods.

Large companies used economies of scale, mechanised and computerised warehouses and close control of their workforce, to reduce costs and the number of employees and vehicles required. Restructuring such as this has led to considerable changes to the work of employee drivers.

In 1987 the TWU amalgamated with Motor Transport and Chauffeurs Association, which gave the Union coverage of the private bus industry in Victoria.


With the conservative Howard Government coming into power in 1996 the TWU has had to face new challenges. The focus of membership retention turned to a more organising focus as compulsory membership was made illegal under the Workplace Relations Act 1996. Before this time union members and organisers could pressure non-union truck drivers to not enter union dominated workplaces.

At first membership declined rapidly, however it picked up in recent years with almost every state increasing membership in 2004. Targeted recruitment and retention campaigns are proving highly successful for the union, as well as increased co-operation between different state branches.

In 2006 Federal Secretary John Allan resigned. He was replaced by NSW Secretary Tony Sheldon as Acting Federal Secretary. The head office location has been moved from Melbourne to Sydney.

As National Secretary Sheldon lead the union to success in the 'Safe Rates'[1] campaign with the passing of legislation to establish the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal [2] in 2012. The union continues the fight for decent and fair Australian aviation jobs in the wake of the 2011 Qantas industrial disputes.

External links[edit]


A number of books have been written about the history of the TWU, including:

  • Bradley Bowden, Driving Force: The History of the Transport Workers' Union of Australia 1883-1992, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993.
  • Mark Bray and Malcolm Rimmer, Delivering the Goods: A History of the NSW Transport Workers Union 1898-1986, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987.
  • TWU NSW Branch, Proud To Be A TWU Member: Transport Workers Tell Their Stories, 1999.
  • John Kellett, A Fighting Union: A History of the Queensland Branch of the Transport Workers' Union, 1907-2000, Queensland 2001