E tū was launched in October 2015 with the merging of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, the Service and Food Workers Union and the Flight Attendants and Related Services Union.  We have a long history of fighting for the rights of workers, our families and our communities.

The oldest part of our union, the building trades, goes back to the formation of the Carpenters Union in 1860, but even before then the father of the 40-hour week, carpenter Samuel Parnell, was made famous in 1840 when he refused to build a Lambton Quay store for local Wellington businessman George Hunter until Hunter agreed that Parnell would only work an 8-hour day. Parnell told Hunter that a working man’s day should be 8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep and 8 hours for recreation and he would not build his store until he agreed to those terms. With the shortage of carpenters in Wellington Hunter immediately agreed although the 8-hour day was not won by all New Zealand workers until the 1890s.

The Engineers Union and the Printers Union were also established in Auckland in the 1860s followed 10 years later by a Painters Union, a Bakers Union and a Waiters Union. These unions were formed by tradesmen who had served apprenticeships, and were called trade unions to distinguish themselves, as skilled workers, from labour unions comprising “unskilled” workers.

These unions grouped themselves into Trades Councils and from the beginning were involved in not just winning better working conditions on the job from employers, but also organising for improved labour legislation, such as measures to protect factory workers, shop assistants, coal miners, shearers and preventing unauthorised deductions from workers’ pay packets.

With the growth of unions for unskilled workers and women (such as the Domestic Servants Unions and the Waitresses’ and Female Cooks’ Union) the Liberal Government in the 1890s passed the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, which gave unions greater legal rights to organise, introduced arbitrated occupational awards and allowed unions to negotiate preferential provisions for members.

Throughout our history there has been a tension between using our organisational strength to negotiate directly with employers, the use of the courts and the arbitration system, and the union’s involvement with parliament and parliamentary political parties to create and strengthen additional worker rights. Our union’s involvement in the formation of the NZ Labour Party as a vehicle to introduce great worker legal rights, versus the strikes and direct action to extend these rights, has been an essential thread of our history during the last 100 years.

Many of these direction action struggles, such as the 1913 strike and the 1951 lockout, were lost but they created amongst those unionists understanding of the strategies and tactics necessary to win.

This was put to the test in the 1980s and 1990s when the forces of economic change blew away a century of worker rights, culminating in the Employment Contracts Act 1991. Unions responded by re-organising through amalgamations and developing new strategies to organise., Despite the dominance of free market ideology since the 1980s our union, together with our other union, church and community allies, have been part of successful campaigns to win paid travel time and guaranteed hours for home support workers, to win an equal pay settlement for 55,000 care and support workers, to establish that workers being on-call on your employer’s premises overnight are entitled to the minimum wage, and to win the Living Wage for thousands of workers either employed by, or contracted to, city councils.

The formation of E tū has given us greater size and strength to develop thousands of member leaders, to organise in new areas such as home support and labour hire, and to be at the forefront of the struggle against the new forms of worker exploitation in the form of contracting and sub-contracting.