THE UNION - CONCEPTION & THE EARLY YEARS
17 September 1901 - A Shaky Start
On 14 June 1900, with the help of the Sydney Labour Council, 30 electrical trade workers formed the Operative Electrical Union. It was a shaky beginning as the union was wound up on 17 September 1901.
A more solid start was made on 13 May 1902 when the Victorian Branch was formed. Electrical workers in Victoria met, elected an Executive and called themselves "The Electrical Association of Australia". On 28 May 1902 the Victorian Trades Hall minutes note that the newly formed Electrical Employees Association sought affiliation with the Council.
It seems there is no requirement for State registration so early on they form a federation and register under the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Act.
NSW Branch Forms
New South Wales tried again with more success on 28 October 1902 when the Electrical Trades Union of New South Wales was formed. Officers were elected, entrance fees set, and four Executive meetings were held before Christmas of that year.
Early Moves to Federation
On 18 December 1902, a letter received from the "Melbourne Electrical Workers" suggesting affiliation and federation to NSW Union. The NSW Union decides "the question of affiliation with the Melbourne Union be left until such time as an Arbitration Court is established in Victoria." During this time the Victorian Union writes to the NSW Union wanting to create a national union. NSW seems more interested in consolidating itself within NSW than joining forces with its brothers in other States.
On 12 January 1903 "The Electrical Trades Union of NSW" was registered under the Trade Union Act 1881 as a trade union. On the 25 February 1903 the "Electrical Trades Union of New South Wales" registered as an industrial union under the Industrial Arbitration Act 1901 NSW.
By the 9th April 1907 the Electrical Trades Union of NSW Branch rules provided for a membership eligibility rule as follows:
3(a) Any person shall be eligible for membership in this Union who has been employed at electrical work in any of the capacities herein specified:- Armature Winders, Battery Makers and Erectors, Battery Attendants, Electrical Fitters and Mechanics, Installation Attendants, Dynamo and Motor Attendants, Instrument Makers, Switchboard Attendants, Sub-Station Attendants, Wiremen, Telephone Fitters and Repairers, Arc Lamp Trimmers, and Linesmen, or such other classes of electrical operatives as the Society may decide by a majority vote of the members present at a specially summoned meeting ..."
South Australia Joins Up
South Australia joined the fray on 8 January 1908 when the South Australian Electrical Workers Association visited the Victorian and New South Wales Unions to discuss the prospect of Federation. However NSW is still lukewarm about the concept of federation.
At about the same time the Victorian Union changes its name to "Electrical Trades Union of Victoria".
NSW Starts to come to the Party
For two years NSW expresses little interest in Federation until a report to the NSW Committee of Management notes on 26 April 1910 that "now the Labor Party is in power in the Federal Parliament, there is a possibility of having the Arbitration Act amended to make it workable and enable electricians in common with other trades to take full advantage of its provisions."
After this report the committee recommended that letters be sent to the interstate unions to open negotiations concerning federation. However, the Secretary Donald Black expresses caution which results in the committee of management being asked to submit a more detailed report of the method and expense involved in bringing the federation about.
On 11 March 1911 the First Victorian Electrical Installation Award is published.
Victoria attempts to register Federal Union
Out of frustration at the lack of progress regarding federation, on 4 November 1911 the Victorian ETU applies to register Federated ETU. Subsequently, the Commonwealth Government Gazette publishes the notice that the Victorian ETU has applied to the Commonwealth Registrar to register the Federated Trades Union of Australia as an organisation under the Federal Act.
This so incenses the NSW ETU that on 7 December 1911 NSW ETU lodges a formal objection to the proceedings - not to stop the federation but to postpone it subject to discussion. Also opposing the registration are the Tramways Union and the Amalgamated Engineers.
After hearing the parties the Registrar adjourns the matter to allow the Vic and NSW parties to confer. The opposition of the Tramways Union seems to galvanise the NSW Union to support the proposition of the federation.
Finally, on 4 May 1912 Federated Electrical Trades Union is registered under the Federal Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act but the trials and tribulations of registration are not yet over.
SA and Tasmania officially join the Federation
In February 1913 four States meet and draw up a Federal Constitution but NSW decides "its hands are too full" and defers action on Federation. South Australia subsequently joins the Federation followed by Tasmania.
In Comes the Queensland Branch
The Queensland Branch forms and joins the federation in 28 June 1915. The inaugural meeting of workers in the electrical trades met in Trades Hall Brisbane who formally established a Queensland Branch of the Federated Electrical Trades Union of Australia. A committee of management is elected and on joining, all members sign federal membership cards.
It seems the NSW Branch may have been the force behind the formation of the Branch as an organiser and Mr Bryan, from the NSW Branch, became the first secretary of the Qld Branch.
By the 7th of July 1915, NSW joins the Federal Union.
The NSW Branch General meeting resolved to apply to the Federal Council of the ETU to admit the ETU of NSW as a Branch of the Federated Electrical Union of Australia. In September 1915 Donald Black (who was Secretary of the NSW Branch) became a delegate to Federal Conference and was nominated as Federal Treasurer. Conference appointed him Federal President and in 1917 he was appointed General Secretary.
In the early days of trade unions there was much confusion over registration and name changes were common. The Industrial Arbitration Court was making new law and no-one was quite sure how things were going to turn out. So many of the early registration and de-registration proceedings were about fixing up legal technicalities.
New technology was emerging fast - electricity and everything that came with it was changing the rules, the jobs people did and the way they worked. This impacted on union eligibility rules.
With the pace of technology it was a battle to keep eligibility coverage relevant. Unions were positioning themselves for a piece of the action and the ETU was uniquely placed to be in the best position. Names and eligibility coverage became very important to claims of coverage, so it was extremely important to get it right. The ETU in the early days spent considerable resources making sure it could cover and represent its members into the future.
On 20 November 1916 the NSW State union re-registered as "Federated Electrical Trades Union of Australia, New South Wales Branch" under the Trade Union Act 1881 and on December 10 1917 the NSW Branch Executive meeting resolved:
"to ... apply to have the union registered under the NSW Industrial Arbitration Act 1912-1918 under the title of the Federated Electrical Trades Union of Australia, New South Wales Branch and to apply to the Industrial Arbitration Court for the cancellation of the registration of the Electrical Trades Union of New South Wales".
Official Federal Registration
On 24 December 1919 "Electrical Trades Union of Australia" federally re-registered under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, 1904 as an association of employees. This date is now taken as the official registration date of the Federal Union.
On 23 September 1920 the NSW Branch trade union name changed to the "Electrical Trades Union of Australia, New South Wales Branch" under the Trade Union Act and on 5 December 1922 the NSW industrial union changed its registered name to "Electrical Trades Union of Australia, New South Wales Branch". Its dual status as a state union registered in its own right, and a branch of the federally registered union, became firmly entrenched and a later source of much conflict within the union.