Did you know that in 1976 the union movement led one of the largest strikes in Australia’s history to defend universal healthcare?

Unions have always campaigned to protect the health of workers, which led to workplace health and safety laws.

But we also want the right to a healthy and decent life outside of working hours.

For unions, the idea of the quality of healthcare we receive being based on how much money we have in our bank accounts is completely reprehensible.

Healthcare is a right!

So when the Labor Government of Gough Whitlam sought to introduce a system of universal healthcare when it was in office, from 1972 to 1975, we were enthusiastic supporters!

At the time universal healthcare was called Medibank – not to be confused with Medibank today.

Whitlam had an extremely difficult time trying to introduce healthcare. Many elite interests were opposed to it, and so was the Liberal Party at the time.

Whitlam was dismissed from office in 1975 and was replaced by Malcolm Fraser from the Liberal Party.

Fraser immediately began undermining the system.

In July of 1976, the union movement realised we had to take a stand.

Unfortunately, universal healthcare didn’t have many defenders. This might be hard to imagine today – but at the time, there were lots of people who wanted us to go down the private healthcare path, like the United States.

The ACTU, led by our President, Bob Hawke, organised a national strike to defend healthcare.

More than two million workers took action on the day – an event reported around the world!

We were able to slow Fraser’s attacks, but not stop them entirely. Eventually, his government undermined the system.

But in 1983, Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister, leading a new Labor Government.

This government had an agreement with the union movement, known as The Accord.

As part of this agreement we insisted in the restoration of universal healthcare.

This was introduced by the Hawke government in 1984 under a new name: Medicare!

That is the history of how unions helped create Medicare – a system we have campaigned to protect, and better, ever since.

This Union History article was originally published by the Australian Trade Union Institute at https://atui.org.au/2021/07/09/the-1976-strike-to-defend-universal-healthcare/

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