The Birth of an Organising Union


In 2013 the Transport Workers’ Union celebrated 125 years of organising transport workers in New South Wales. The union produced Birth of an Organising Union in recognition of that achievement.


The Trolly, Draymen and Carters’ Union was first formed in 1888. However the young organisation was not able to survive the harsh tests of economic depression, and hostility from employers and governments during the early 1890s. The Birth of an Organising Union focuses on the union’s revival in 1901, a year that marks the reorganisation of the union that became the modern Transport Workers’ Union. 1901 also provides a vivid snapshot of the working lives and living conditions faced by trollymen, draymen and carters and their families in the rough and tumble conditions around Sydney’s Darling Harbour precinct, the area of West Sydney, as it was then known, and where the union first organised its members.

Living conditions were poor: often not much better than the horse stables that were also a feature of every street.

1901 was also a time when Australia officially became a nation, and the labour movement began to grow in both industrial and political strength, leading to the world’s first Labor government in 1904, and the formation of other Labor governments in New South Wales and the Commonwealth soon afterwards. The Trolly, Draymen and Carters’ Union played a vital role in building this future. Without the dedicated service and sacrifices of those workers, union delegates and officials, the Transport Workers’ Union would never have been able to develop as the powerful voice of transport workers in New South Wales and across Australia. The Birth of an Organising Union is a testimony to the brave struggles of the workers who formed our union, and serves as a powerful reminder that new generations of workers and unions are often called upon to renew the struggle for achieving better wages and conditions for working people, and protecting our hard-won gains. The issues that inspired our forefathers to form this great union are the same issues we face today: the fight for safety on the job, the right to work reasonable hours to get fair wages and conditions. The Birth of an Organising Union demonstrates why the union revived with such force in 1901. The lessons that were learnt in those early formative years are with us still: that the real strength of the Transport Workers’ Union is our members and that we were, and always will be, an organising union.

Eight Hours and Safe Rates: In 1901 the carters employed by the Sydney retailing firm David Jones & Co. were compelled to work an average 15 hours per day. Today drivers are still compelled to drive long and unsafe hours. That is why the TWU fought a 20 year campaign to establish the Safe Rates Remuneration Tribunal. The need for the Tribunal can trace its footsteps back to, and beyond, 1888.




1888: On July 24 a meeting is held in the Maritime Hall, Sussex Street, Sydney to form the Sydney Trolley and Draymen’s Union. Andy Kelly was elected President and Moses Wheeler Secretary. By August, 225 members had joined the new union.

1890: Trolley and Draymen form the front-line in the bitter Maritime Strike, an attempt to stop the export of wool shorn by non-union labour, and to defend the right to unionise. The unions were defeated in the strike, and the Trolley and Draymen’s Union declined in strength during the economic depression of the 1890s.

1901: Future Prime Minister Billy Hughes helps to revive the union as the Trolley, Draymen and Carters’ Union. By 1914 the Union had 4,780 members. In 1916, during World War One, Hughes was expelled by the union for his plan to impose military conscription for overseas service.

1917: The steady work of building the union’s industrial strength and award coverage in New South Wales is disrupted by the union’s defeat and de-registration for participating in the 1917 Great Strike. During the strike a member of the Trolley, Draymen and Carters’ Union, Mervyn Flanagan, was shot dead in Bridge Road, Camperdown, by a “scab” stock and station agent, carrying a load to Darling Harbour. The union’s registration was restored in 1918.

1921: The Trolley and Draymen’s Union obtains its first award covering motor lorry drivers. In that year 3,524 motor lorries, 180 omnibuses and 407 cabs were registered in New South Wales. Yet in 1933 a majority of members were still driving horse-drawn carts.

1928: The Trolley and Draymen’s Union awards are merged into a consolidated NSW Carter’s General Award. It was a good award by the standard of the times – providing a 44 hour working week, penalty rates, a range of allowances and preference for union members. Following an amalgamation, the Union becomes the federally registered Amalgamated Road Transport Workers Union.

1929: The Great Depression severely damages the Australian economy. Unemployment rises to a record 30% of the workforce. The Premier’s Plan, prepared by Otto Niemeyer from the Bank of England, attacks workers with wages cut by 10%, and heavy cuts to Government spending. Many transport workers face long-term unemployment during the 1930s.

1943: AG ‘Barney’ Platt becomes NSW Branch Secretary of the new Transport Workers Union of Australia. Platt leads a “progressive” team of officials, including some communists, who attract criticism from other unions and the Labor Party’s Industrial Groups, opposed to communist involvement in trade unions. After 1945, and the end of World War Two, the TWU mounts a campaign to improve the wages and conditions of owner-drivers in the transport industry, who had started to appear on Australian roads in increasing numbers, usually driving army surplus trucks.

1955: Barney Platt and TWU Organiser Jack Kane are heavily involved in the bitter split which engulfs the Labor Party. Platt is opposed to the Industrial groupers; Kane is one of the Groupers’ leaders. In the fall-out of this faction fighting, from 1956 Platt steadily lost control of the union to Ernie Wilmot, who took over as Secretary in 1959. Kane was expelled from the Labor Party in 1956 and went on to form the Democratic Labor Party, which helped keep Labor out of office in Canberra until 1972.

1960: The TWU’s industrial coverage expands with the growth of both the road transport and oil industries. Membership also expands in the Bus, Airlines and Dairy industries. From 1959 to 1969 membership rose from 5,222 to 23,865.

1969: The TWU is again the centre of events which shake the labour movement. The Moore v Doyle case in the Commonwealth Industrial Court upholds the right of the TWU to represent owner-drivers – while creating chaos by finding that the federally registered TWU, and the state (NSW) registered TWU, were two separate and distinct legal entities. The result fueled tensions between the Federal and NSW TWU, particularly over coverage of oil industry members (covered by a federal award), and posed many problems for other unions.

1974-76: Under the leadership of Secretary Ted McBeatty, the TWU’s Transport Industry (State) Award becomes the wages pacesetter in New South Wales, and often across Australia. Transport workers’ wages increased sharply in 1970-74. The TWU was also caught up in the politics of the era, joining in the 1976 Medibank strike – over Malcolm Fraser’s attack on the health care system introduced by the Whitlam Government. Governor-General Sir John Kerr sacked Whitlam in 1975, allowing Fraser to become Prime Minister.

1979: Owner-drivers stage the Razorback blockades to highlight their campaign for the abolition of the NSW Road Tax and increased sub-contract rates.

1983: Secretary Ted McBeatty dies in a boating accident, and is succeeded by Harry Quinn. During the 1980s the TWU continued its aggressive wages strategy, and expands the role of its legal department, representing members in workers compensation and back-pay claims. The Hawke Labor Government is elected in 1983.

1989: John McLean becomes NSW TWU Secretary. The TWU develops comprehensive superannuation coverage for transport workers. Quinn House is opened in Parramatta, to better service members in Western Sydney, and the network of regional TWU offices is expanded.

1994: Steve Hutchins replaces the retiring John McLean. Over the years 1995-98, the TWU is one of only three NSW unions to increase membership each year over the three year period.

1998: After 18 years of service to the TWU, Steve Hutchins joins Kim Beazley’s team in Canberra as a Labor Senator. Tony Sheldon is elected unopposed as NSW TWU State Secretary.

2009: Wayne Forno becomes NSW TWU State Secretary.

2012: Following a 20-year campaign, the TWU succeeds in securing ground-breaking legislation through National Parliament in the form of Safe Rates. TWU NSW State Secretary and one of the leaders of the campaign Wayne Forno hails this as a milestone not only for the union but the entire labour movement worldwide.

2015: Michael Aird is elected unopposed as NSW TWU State Secretary.

2016: Richard Olsen becomes NSW TWU State Secretary.

Transport Workers' Union NSW