History of the ETU

The ETU was formed by 37 electricians back in 1902 to further the social and industrial interest of electrical workers. One hundred and ten years later the ETU today represents 20,000 members across NSW and the ACT working in the electrical, energy, communications, transport, manufacturing and general trade sectors.

Since the 28th of October 1902 the ETU has grown into the successful union that is it today. Throughout this time the union and its members have faced many struggles as the union organised to progress the interests of members both at work and within society.

1915 marked the first intake of electrical apprentices in NSW with 74 students enrolling at Ultimo and 18 students at Newcastle. A year later 16 electrical apprentice’s commenced training in Broken Hill.

It wasn’t long before electrical licensing became an issue with ETU members resolving not to work with or connect any work that had been completed by anyone that did not hold an electricians ticket. The ETU was instrumental in the development of the electrician’s ticket and issued such qualifications.

1920 marked the commencement of the ETU’s equal pay campaign and by 1930 the ETU had 51female members registered with the union.

As the use of electricity continued to expand NSW welcomed the first electric trains in 1926, an industry that today employs hundreds of ETU members across the state.

Despite the depression and two wars the ETU continued to grow and prosper with membership doubling during the Second World War where many members were employed in munitions factories and manufacturing plants.

1950 saw the establishment of the NSW Electricity Commission which took over the operation of power stations and the transmission network. The Electricity commission also played an important role in securing supply and dealt with electricity shortages by establishing County Councils.

Throughout the 1950’s local government went about building the electricity network that formed the foundations of todays interconnected electricity networks.

In May 1961 the NSW Trade and Industrial union of the ETU was formed. As a registered trade union in NSW, it was not long before this state registered union had over 7,000 members.

At the end of 1963 the union took a very brave step and conducted an extensive campaign to claim 4 weeks annual leave for employees in the electricity supply industry. The ETU was successful following a dispute spearheaded by members employed by the Murrumbidgee County Council.

In 1968 electrical tradespeople gained an advantage of $3.00 over other trades, and over the next couple of years this gap continued to increase. Since that time the electrician has maintained a significant lead and recognition as "Head of the family of trades".

1970 saw the ETU succeed in gaining huge wage improvements for members in the Commonwealth Public Sector. In 1973 ETU members received an annual leave loading of 17.5%. 

In 1985 the Queensland Government planned to dramatically reduce the workforce in the electrical industry by 10% and increase the number of private contractors. The NSW Branch assisted by raising funds to assist the hundreds of Queensland branch members sacked by SEQEB.

By 1982 over 10,000 ETU members were employed in the task of providing the community with all the power it needed as cheaply as possible. The majority of this section of the membership was employed not in the power stations themselves but in the field ensuring that light and power got from the point of supply to the consumer, and ensuring that that line of supply is maintained.
 
The ETU was fundamental in establishing the Electrical Contracting Industry (State) Award in 1992. The Union, as party to the Award, continue to campaign for improvements to the Award and in the era of Enterprise Bargaining to ensure that Award conditions are maintained in Enterprise Agreements.

In August 1996 ETU members joined over 10,000 other Australians from all walks of life outside the Federal Parliament to rally against the proposed Workplace Relations Bill.

A proposal by the Carr Labor Government in 1997, to privatise the NSW power industry forced the Union to deal with its biggest challenge in its history. The Union was successful in defeating this proposition advocated by the Premier and the Treasurer on the floor of the NSW ALP Conference by harnessing the support of fellow unionists and rank and file ALP members.

A five-week dispute in the Construction Industry was ultimately successful in returning wage equity to electricians in this industry. The sparky was returned to the top of the remuneration tree. A 21% pay rise over 20 months was achieved.

In 1998 Bernie Riordan was appointed Secretary following the resignation of Bert Schmidt. The Union was successful in extending the inclusion of the 36-hour working week and 9 day fortnight into all awards in the electricity distribution sector.

The State election in March 1999 returned the ETU to its anti-privatisation campaign. The union focused its campaign directly at the consumers and distributed 100,000 pamphlets in marginal seats highlighting the social perils of electricity privatisation. The ALP Government was returned with an increased majority. The Union’s campaign vindicated.   

In the year 2000, the inclusion of superannuation salary sacrifice provisions in the Contracting Award was a substantial breakthrough. ETU members also played an integral role in delivering what was a spectacular event in the form of the Sydney Olympic Games.

In 2005 the conservative Howard Government introduced new workplace rules commonly known as “Work Choices” which was a fundamental attack on the rights and conditions of every worker in Australia. The ETU was at the forefront of the highly successful Your Rights at Work campaign run by unions across the country. This campaign culminated in the Howard Government being thrown from office in 2007.

2008 again saw a Labor Premier attempt to privatise the NSW electricity system. In 2008 Morris Iemma became the second ALP Premier to be defeated by his own party on the floor of the 2008 ALP conference where he lost his motion to privatise the NSW electricity network 700 votes to 100 votes. The ETU was again instrumental in delivering this victory for rank and file ALP members and voicing the concerns of the broader public.

2011 saw the election of a conservative NSW Government who has rolled out a raft of attacks on workers across NSW including ETU members. The O’Farrell Government have set about removing rights and conditions from working people with their single biggest attack being the removal and restriction of workers compensation – a basic right that all workers have enjoyed for more than half a century.

In 2012 ETU Secretary Bernie Riordan was appointed a Commissioner with Fair Work Australia – the independent industrial umpire – which saw the election of current ETU Secretary Steve Butler.