Pre-empting New Social Movements, Pioneering Social-Movement Unionism: Australian Builders Labourers in the 1970s


1 June 2012


Volume 1 – Number

How to cite

Verity Burgmann and Meredith Burgmann



Kim Moody’s Workers in a Lean World (1997) identifies five characteristics of social- movement unionism: militancy; ultra-democratic forms of organization; an agenda for radical social and economic change; a determination to embrace the diversity of the working class to overcome fragmentation; and a capacity to lead community struggles. The use of the term ‘social-movement unionism’ to describe this phenomenon that arose during the 1990s in response to the challenges posed to labour movements by globalization implies its impressive attributes owed much to the influence of the new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s. However, in the early 1970s, the New South Wales branch of the Australian Builders Labourers’ Federation (NSWBLF) pioneered a form of unionism that meets all the criteria in Moody’s typology. The NSWBLF created this inspiring form of unionism out of the best of traditional labour movement values and practices, encouraged by the New Left in the late 1960s rather than new social movement influences, and well in advance of the development of ‘social-movement unionism’ from the 1990s onwards.


Social-Movement Unionism, Australia, Builders Labourers’ Federation, Early 1970s