Employers Associations and Trade Unions in Australia

1. Brief Description of Employees’ and Employers’ Organizations

Trade unions form the mainstay of employee representation in Australia. However there is no doubt that their influence and membership has significantly declined over the last two decades. With that said, under the Fair Work Act the unions enjoy a powerful role in relation to workplace bargaining even if their capacity to organise strikes has been diminished. The preeminent trade union body in Australia is the Australian Council of Trade Unions (“ACTU”), which represents the interests of a number of unions that have membership in the ACTU.

There are a number of other significant union bodies in Australia and unionism has long been an important issue in workplace law. Australia’s major parties are divided on unions, with the Labor party often legislating in favour of union influence, which the Liberal party regularly seek to undermine their role in the workplace. Recent proposed changes by the Coalition Government primarily concern a reduction in union influence — which is indicative of the ongoing struggle between unions and business in modern Australia.

Firmly pitted against the union movement is an array of employer associations, such as the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Much as the unions have influenced Labor policy, these bodies often play a prominent part in the formulation of liberal policy, and typically favour the interests of business over workers’ rights.

2. Rights and Importance of Trade Unions

Unions currently play a crucial role in Australian employment law. This primarily manifests in the process of enterprise bargaining where an employer will come together with its employees and their chosen union in order to negotiate conditions of employment specific to their company or industry.

Unions also have the capacity to apply to the FWC to undertake strike action in relation to a grievance at the workplace. Unions may not, however, simply organise and initiate strike action without this due process. Unions also have right of entry into workplaces where they have members, and may use this privilege to examine working conditions and other important factors.

3. Types of Representation

Unions form the primary source of employee representation in Australia. However, given their rapidly declining membership base, there are isolated but significant examples of alternative employee representation.

Alternative forms of employee representation do exist in Australia, however they remain largely embryonic at this stage. Should the importance of unions continue to deteriorate, it may be that these internal bodies will become a more vital cog in Australian employment law.

There is no legal requirement for employee representation at any level of management. However, if an organisation wishes to regulate an agreement with its employees, it must inform employees of their right to be represented by the union.

For more information on these articles or any other issues involving labour and employment matters in Australia, please contact Michael Harmer, Partner at Harmers Workplace Lawyers ( at
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