The Federation Press

Peak Unions in Australia

Origins, purpose, power, agency


This innovative and comprehensive book is the first detailed study of the making and development of Australian peak unions. For over 150 years, peak unions have been central part of the Australian industrial relations landscape. They remain by far the most significant institutional form of inter-union cooperation in the country at the national, state, local and industry scales.

They are remarkably varied bodies which have played vital roles in union growth and labour renewal. Some are strong, some weak and a select few have even come close to being unaccountable, a state within a state. This multi-author book systematically examines their nature and influence at different times, in different places. It adopts a unique combination of comparative method and conceptual insights from the fields of industrial relations, history, geography, organisational studies and political science.

Its 13 chapters explore the whole range of peak unions and labour councils, from local bodies in Rockhampton, the Illawarra, Wagga Wagga and Broken Hill, through State councils in Western Australia, Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, to the national peak union body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

The book allies this empirical diversity with an essential theoretical cohesion. It opens with two conceptual chapters which develop a model for explaining the formation and changing purpose and power of peak unions, a model which resonates through all the subsequent chapters.


The collection is well organised so that we are led into histories of state and regional peak councils via an international overview ...These histories and theoretical structures may also provide a way of looking at the futures of declining movements. Is the current malaise terminal and what can a study of national, state and regional peak bodies tell us about ways forward? Can unions rethink the roles of central offices and revitalise peak regional offices as organising units? Can the regional bodies be part of a revinvention of unions to once again play a role in the social and structural development of the centres in which they are located? ... this detailed collection of theoretical and empirical insights may help chart that future course. - Labour History, 89 (November 2005)

The book is much more than a recitation of facts but rather a deep analysis of the reasons for the successes and failures of peak councils. What holds them together? How do agendas change? Why, at times, do peak councils fragment? Issues of power and labour policies come into play in all of this. - Qld Journal of Labour History No1 (Sep 2005)

This collection constitutes an important addition to our store of reference material on Australian unionism. Not only does it provide much new information and analysis on that significant but neglected aspect of Australian union history, peak unions, but a number of chapters throw light on another neglected segment of Australian industrial relations, the state systems. This is particularly the case in respect of Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria. The histories of the various peak unions in the those states provide important insights into the social, political and industrial backgrounds that underpin their industrial relations systems. - Labour & Industry, Vol 16 No 3, April-May 2006

This is an edited collection of articles on peak unions bodies in Australia. It is in the very best traditions of industrial relations scholarship. Solid, historically informed individual contributions are pulled together with a purposeful but light editorial hand that maintains the distinctive voice and approaches of the authors, although adding an overarching conceptual framework that means the collection is greater than the sum of its parts. ...
The book provides us with ways of understanding how peak councils might enter a new phase of development in the very chilly ideological and political climate of early 21st century Australia. - Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol 47 No 4 (Dec 2005)

A thoughtful and at times provocative analysis of peak union councils, this book is an instructive read for union members. Contemporary Australia sees hostility towards unions and collective bargaining increasingly the fare of daily media speculation and thus questions of unity and strength of purpose are central debates. In this context, as in many others, a little historical understanding can be a powerful thing. Peak Unions in Australia is thus a timely and valuable contribution not just to our history but potentially to union futures. I thoroughly recommend it. - Sharan Burrow, President, ACTU

Table of Contents

Bradon Ellem, Raymond Markey and John Shields

Different Roads to Power: A Comparative Study of National Union Federations
Chris Briggs

Beyond the ’Will to Unity’: Theorising Peak Union Organisation and Agency
Bradon Ellem and John Shields

The Labour Council of NSW: 1871-2001
Ray Markey

Product of a Community in Transition: The First Brisbane Trades Labour Council: 1885-1888
John Kellett

The Industrial and Political Role of the Trades and Labour Council of Queensland since 1922: A Reassessment
Simon Fry, John Shields and Bradon Ellem

The Formation and Role of an Independent Trades and Labour Council in Western Australia
Bobbie Oliver

The Barrier Industrial Council: A Study in Local Peak Union Origins, Purpose, Power and Decline
Bradon Ellem and John Shields

Peak Unionism in the Illawarra
Ray Markey and Shirley Nixon

A Podium for Politics: The Origins and Role of the Rockhampton Trades and Labour Council and Its Predecessors
Barbara Webster

A Fourth Level Council: The Wagga Wagga District Trades and Labour Council: 1943-1990
Warwick Eather

Power and Space in the Victorian Trades Hall Council
Cathy Bridgen

The End of a Cycle? The Australian Council of Trade Unions in Historical Perspective
Chris Briggs

Of interest...