The Australian Rail Tram & Bus Industry Union (RTBU), formerly known as the Public Transport Union or PTU, was formed on March 1, 1993, through the amalgamation of the Australian Railways Union, the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen, the Australian Tramway & Motor Omnibus Employees' Association and the National Union of Rail Workers' of Australia. This amalgamation effectively created one transport industry union for the first time in Australia. The union is affiliated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Internationally, the RTBU is affiliated with the International Transport Workers' Federation.
It is organised into National Divisions, covering Infrastructure; Rail Operations; Tram and Bus; Locomotive; Workshops and Salaried and Professional. There are six state branches, with the National Office located in Sydney.
Frank Anstey helped found the Australian Tramway Employees’ Association in 1910 and served as its president for a number of years. Another prominent member was Lionel Hill, who was Secretary of the South Australia state branch from 1910 to 1924 and the union federal President from 1912 to 1924. He was elected as the Labor member for East Torrens to the South Australian House of Assembly in 1915, became Premier in 1926 and for a second term from the 1930 state election.
On 18 January 1912 members who worked on the Brisbane tramways were stood down for wearing union badges. The dispute escalated to the general issue of the right to join a union and the Brisbane trades and labour council initiated a general strike, known as the 1912 Brisbane General Strike, which lasted for five weeks.
The union became the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association [AT&MOEA] in 1934. When this union was deregistered in 1950 over the one man tram dispute in Melbourne, its members created, within the same year, a new union of the same name.
On 15 May 1969 Clarrie O'Shea, the Victorian State Secretary of the union, was jailed by John Kerr for contempt of the Industrial Court after he disobeyed a court order that his union pay $8,100 in fines, under the penal sections of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. This triggered the biggest postwar national strike organised by unions when 1 million workers stopped work over six days of national strikes to demand "Free Clarrie and repeal the penal powers". On the sixth day, O'Shea was released when the fines were paid by a man who claimed to have won the New South Wales lottery.
In Victoria, railway labourers formed the Mutual Services Association [MSA] in 1884 and looked to incorporate the various trades and crafts within the industry in a single powerful railway union, but remained largely unsuccessful in this attempt. The MSA retained a high rate of membership throughout the 1890s, and in 1900 changed its name to the Amalgamated Society of Railway Employees [ASRE]. In 1911 the ASRE and cognate organisations voted overwhelmingly to form a united Victorian Railways Union, which, in 1921 became the Victorian Branch of the Australian Railways Union [ARU].
In 1861, seven years after the official opening of Victoria's first railway, the Locomotive Engine Drivers' Association was formed in an attempt to maintain some standards of employment for these skilled workers. Comprising roughly twenty members, the Association grew to include firemen in 1872, prompting a change of name to the Locomotive Engine Drivers & Firemens' Association. In October 1899 representatives of the Railway Locomotive Enginemen's Associations of New South Wales, South Australia Queensland and Victoria met in Melbourne and voted in favour of forming the Federated Railway Locomotive Enginemens' Association of Australia.
The Federated Railway Locomotive Enginemens' Association of Australia met yearly at Conference, but did not set up a Federal Division until 1920. In that year a decision of the High Court made it possible for unions covering employees in state instrumentalities to have access to the Federal Arbitration Court. In February 1921, the newly named Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen [AFULE] was the first such union to gain federal registration with the Court.
In 1922-1923, following Federal registration, successful steps were taken for the AFULE to gain coverage of Locomotive Enginemen working for Commonwealth railways, and the Union became truly Australia wide.
In 1924, the AFULE decided to file a separate log of claims on each of the state employers, but the decision of the Australian Railways Union to try to establish one federal award for all railwaymen precipitated the Locomotive Enginemen into a similar case before the Federal Arbitration Court. The AFULE presented a mass of detailed evidence resulting by April 1925 in its first Federal Award binding on State instrumentalities and bringing its four Union Divisions into line industrially.
By 1926 the union changed its name to the Australian Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, only to change it back to the Australian Federated Union of Enginemen in 1927. After 1970, membership swelled as a result of the inclusion of members from the deregistered Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen, Commonwealth Division.
The Queensland division of AFULE voted to not affiliate to the RTBU and still operates as a separate union, registered in the Queensland industrial relations system and transitionally registered in the federal system. It is currently fighting the RTBU to fully register in the federal system.
The National Union of Railwaymen of Australia was first registered under the Commonwealth's industrial relations legislation in March 1933. However, it was to last only until July 1933 before it was deregistered. Many members of this original union were eventually covered by a second union of the same name, which registered in 1938. The Union continued under this name until 1982 when it changed to the National Union of Rail Workers of Australia.