The CFMEU has offices in all capital cities in Australia and in many major regional centres with the national office of the union in Sydney. The union has an estimated 120,000 members and employs around 400 full time staff and officials.
The largest amalgamating union, the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) was itself the result of numerous amalgamations over several decades between 1946 and 1992. The coverage of the BWIU included numerous craft unions representing building tradespeople including bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers, tilers, stonemasons and various skilled non-trades construction workers. In the late 1980's the BWIU increased it's coverage to include other construction workers such as steel fixers, concreters, construction labourers and trades assistants following the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF).
The division also has members working off-site in manufacturing workplaces such as shopfitting workshops, joinery shops and other establishments involved in the pre-fabrication of materials used in the construction process. Members also work in brick, tile and pottery manufacturing and in Queensland, the union covers furnishing trades as there is no formal Forestry Division in the State, due to the Australian Workers Unions historical coverage of this industry. The Queensland Branch does, however have a presence in Queensland's forestry sector with CFMEU members employed by the State Government working for the Department of Primary Industries.
With the absorption of the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association of Australasia (FEDFA) which had coverage of crane drivers, plant operators, and other construction workers, the Construction and General Division has moved closer to fulfilling the policy objective of creating a single industry union for construction workers.
The division also has coverage battles for membership of employees with the Australian Workers Union (AWU) over civil construction projects, as both unions' rules allow them to cover civil construction (eg roads, bridges, dams etc.). This has led to several demarcation disputes. Employers negotiate with both the AWU and CFMEU for the best deal.
Each State division operates with autonomy which results in differing services being offered to the members.
The NSW Branch of the CFMEU General and Construction Division has an estimated 8,000 - 10,000 members from a State work force of 120,000 equivalent to 6.5% to 8% participation.
The CFMEU Forestry and Furnishing Products Division was first registered as a Federal Organisation the 21 August 1907, as the Federated Sawmill, Timber-yard and Woodworkers Employees Association of Australasia.
The Union's name was changed in 1913 to the Amalgamated Timber Workers Union of Australia, and again in 1918 to the Australian Timber Workers Union.
In late 1990 a ballot was conducted by members of the Australian Timber Workers Union and the Pulp and Paper Workers Federation of Australia endorsing the amalgamation of both Unions to form the Australian Timber and Allied Industries Union.
Another ballot was conducted in mid 1991 on the amalgamation between the Australian Timber and Allied Industries Union and the Building Workers Industrial Union. This endorsement supported the first stage in the development of what is now the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. The Forest and Furnishing Products Division represents 20,000 members nationally.
The Mining and Energy Division consists of a number of unions which have amalgamated. The largest union to contribute to the formation of the division was the Miners’ Federation which was previously the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees’ Federation (ACSEF) which had a continuous history dating back to 1915. Predecessors to the ACSEF had existed on and off since the 1850s.
Industries covered by the Mining and Energy Division include the coal industry, coal ports, the metalliferous mining industry, electric power generation, oil and gas and the small coke industry.
In 2001 the Howard Government initiated the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry (commonly known as the Cole Royal Commission). The Commission and its findings were largely condemned by the ALP and the Greens which argued that the terms of reference were too narrow. The CFMEU asserted that the purpose of the Commission was a "witch-hunt" to reduce the power of the CFMEU rather than to investigate crime.
Internal politics within the CFMEU General and Construction division resulted in media interviews with John Sutton (National Secretary) and Andrew Ferguson (NSW Branch Secretary) claiming corruption within the union.
The findings of the Cole Royal Commission identified an abuse of the relevant State Occupational Health and Safety Laws to force employers to pay for their employees to join the union.
As a result of the Commission's findings the Building and Construction Commission was established. It has a wide range of powers, including forcing people to answer questions under oath. Penalties of up to $22,000 for individuals and $110,000 for corporations and unions will apply for breaches of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005.
Under WorkChoices, situations where industrial action can take place will be reduced, but industrial action about safety concerns will still be allowed. However, the onus of proof will be reversed. The CFMEU and workers will now have to prove a workplace was unsafe if they wish to stop working. Construction workers, unions and employers face fines four times higher than other sectors for actions deemed illegal.