Our History

The CFMEU has a long and proud history of fighting for workers’ health and safety.

This history is testament to not just the impact our work on safety has had on our industry, but also on many other industries and laws. For over 150 years, we have led the charge to make sure that people can go to work and come without having to risk death or injury. We can’t let these achievements be undermined by greedy employers looking to cut corners on safety and callous governments looking to please their big end of town friends.

A chronology of what we have achieved

1856 Action taken by stonemasons on 21 April 1856 led to the establishment and maintenance of the Eight Hour Day, recognised internationally as a world first. In the subsequent decades this flowed on to every worker in Australia.

1897 Thanks to years of campaigning, the first Workers’ Compensation legislation was adopted in Australia. This meant that workers who had been injured in their workplace didn’t end up destitute and even though it was only partial, families of workers who were killed had an income to help them.

1902 After years of campaigning, government safety inspectors were introduced whose role was to ensure that workplaces were safe and that employers paid attention to the wellbeing of their workers.

1944 Given the physical nature of carrying heavy building materials, the union fought for and won a limit on the number of bricks a labourer had to carry in a barrow.

1956 On the back of the painters’ union campaign, Queensland was the first state to ban the use of lead paint, and other states followed. Lead paint is hazardous. It can cause nervous system damage, stunted growth, kidney damage, and delayed development. It took until the 1980’s to ban all hazardous chemicals.

1957 Law introduced to ensure that employers were obliged to provide protective ‘hard hats’ for building workers.

1971 Accident pay is introduced. Prior to this building workers only a received a percentage of weekly pay when injured. This was won following a three week general strike and then flowed on to all workers.

1975 The CFMEU joined with other unions to win the right for each worker to have 10 days of paid sick leave a year.

1980 After a decade of campaigning the union succeeded in having asbestos products banned. The prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause serious illnesses including malignant lung cancermesothelioma, and asbestosis. To this day, the union supports victims of asbestos and groups dedicated to raising awareness of its dangers.

1985 Health and safety representatives get the legal right to “cease dangerous work.

2004 After James Hardie, a company that used asbestos in their building products despite knowing they were dangerous, relocated its headquarters off-shore in order to avoid paying asbestos victims compensation, the union ran a highly publicised campaign which pressured James Hardie to finalise a new compensation deal. It took until 2007 for that agreement to be reached. In the end James Hardie guaranteed a fund of $4 billion to cover its future obligations to asbestos victims.

2014 Anti-bullying laws are introduced which provide justice to people who are subjected to aggressive or intimidating behaviour, humiliation or pressured to behave in an inappropriate manner.


The CFMEU is Australia's main trade union in construction, forestry and furnishing products, mining and energy production.


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