The peak council of the Australian trade union movement represents some 2.4 million workers through 49 affiliated unions. It has a Labour Council branch in each State and a policy-making process which works through a biennial Congress of about 1000 delegates, an annual Council of 100 and a 40-member Executive which meets quarterly. Originally committed to a socialisation objective, much of its work has been concerned with co-ordinating and consolidating union activity across Australia. Its headquarters are at 393 Swanston Street.
Despite many attempts, beginning with the Inter-colonial Trades Union Congress of 1879, changing economic conditions and rivalries between craft and industrial unions prevented the formation of a continuing organisation until May 1927 when a union congress held in the Melbourne Trades Hall finally agreed to set up a permanent body. Even then, the large, rural-based Australian Workers' Union refused to affiliate until 1967, claiming that the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was a 'hotbed' of communism. After some difficult early years, particularly in the 1930s depression, it grew steadily under the cautious leadership of men like Albert Monk who established pragmatic relationships with successive Australian Labor Party and Coalition governments. When Bob Hawke succeeded him in 1969, half the workforce were union members. After Hawke was elected prime minister in 1983 the ACTU had a direct voice in formulating national economic policy, but because of an increasingly deregulated labour market and a steep decline of employment in industries with traditionally high union density, membership fell to a third of the workforce. In addressing this problem, recent ACTU leaders have relied on the strengths of a vigorous, if embattled, Melbourne labour movement centring around several large unions and the Victorian Trades Hall Council, many of which are located in the Carlton South precinct.