History of the PSA

The first attempt to form the PSA was in April 1886 by Arthur Josling and P.H. Somerville.

But it would be another 13 years before the union was actually established.

In an article entitled ‘A Middle Class Union; the early years of the Public Service Association of NSW’ (Labour and Industry vol.2 no.1 March 1989) Peter Sheldon states that:

“Some of the more prominent members [of the Draftsmen’s Association] who were active as ‘gentlemen from various Ministerial Departments’ held a series of informal meetings which paved the way for an advertised public meeting in March 1899 [which led to the formation of the PSA]”.

That meeting of public servants was on 16 March, 1899 at Aarons’ Exchange Hotel in Gresham Street, Sydney where it was formally decided to form the union.

An interim committee was established to draw up a constitution which was adopted on 21 April of that year.

The constitution was subsequently adopted by a meeting of public servants on 9 June, 1899 at the Protestant Hall, in Castlereagh Street, Sydney.

The meeting took place opposite the fire station and ironically, just a block from what would be the PSA’s office in the seventies.

The Chairman, Mr. Beaver, Clerk of the Peace, addressed the 9 June gathering and said:

“. . . though we have a loyal and faithful service, we must have a fearless service. I mean a service which will not be spineless, or a cringing, craving service, which is always indicative of that which is wrong, because ultimately they would find that a service which dare not express its views in a reasonable and proper manner, and dare not ask for what was legitimately its rights, was bound, more or less, to be a menace to the State.”

The constitution was submitted to the Premier, George Reid and the Public Service Board. Both approved of its contents.

An interim office was established in Bridge Street in Sydney for the use of the Provisional Council, formerly the interim committee, with elections for Council taking place in August 1899.

The newly elected Council appointed the PSA’s first Chairman or President, Cornelius Delohery and W.A. Thomson as Honorary Secretary.

The first edition of the PSA’s newspaper, “The Public Service Journal”, appeared on 4 January, 1900 and carried the story of the historic meeting in March 1899.

In October 1900, the first country branch was formed at Moree.

Others quickly followed in Armidale, Goulburn, Hay, Newcastle, Forbes and Orange.

In November, John Osborne was appointed as the first permanent or General Secretary.

In 1908, the industrial arbitration system was established in NSW.

The PSA was not only denied access to that system but had its membership of approximately 3,300 fragmented by the creation of other unions for railway workers and teachers.

1910 saw the PSA’s first major campaign covering equal pay, superannuation and conditions.

In 1915, the issue of whether to register as a trade union under the Industrial Arbitration and Trade Union Acts sparked spirited debate.

A referendum resulted in 670 members supporting registration with 538 votes cast in opposition.

In November 1919, the PSA was registered under the Trade Union Act, 1881.

On 21 June, 1920, after a considerable period of argument on issues of coverage, the Association was also registered as an industrial union under the Industrial Arbitration Act, 1912.

Four internal divisions were established – Clerical, General, Professional and Education.

A vocational structure – the division and representation of members by the work they performed – also began to emerge and the PSA’s first awards were lodged.

In 1922, new legislation again excluded the PSA from the arbitration system.

The union waged a major political campaign between 1925 and 1930 to regain access and forced the Lang Labor Government to amend the legislation to accommodate the PSA.

The divisional structure within the PSA further evolved into Clerical, General, Professional and Government Agencies plus a Women’s Auxiliary which became known as Women’s Council in 1973.

In July 1927, the name of the PSA’s newspaper changed to “Red Tape”.

The move drew this comment from the Public Service Board: “When a man joyfully or flauntingly adopts a name which has been given to him in depreciation or ridicule, one may be sure that he is thereby claiming to be free from the defect attributed to him.”

During the Great Depression years (1930 to 1945) the PSA fought hard to protect members and jobs.

While job losses were minimised, public servant salaries were slashed following a decision by the 1931 Premier’s Conference to slash expenditure by 20%.

The cuts to public servant’s pay exceeded that figure.

A desperate State Government raided the State Superannuation Fund to the tune of a staggering 900,000 pounds.

It was not until 1938 that the PSA was able to restore pre-depression salaries for members while it took the State Government until 1944 to repay the money taken from the Super fund.

In 1944, one of the union’s earliest objectives was achieved with the establishment of the Crown Employees’ Appeal Board.

The post-war years saw continual growth in the PSA’s activities and membership which in 1939 stood at 6,994.

The PSA affiliated with Labor Council of NSW – now known as Unions NSW – the state’s peak union body in the 1940s.

In 1950, membership was 8,430. By 1960 that figure had jumped to 19,453 and in the early 1970s over 32,000 people were PSA members.

In 1976, the State Public Services Federation (SPSF) was established to give state PSAs across the country a voice in the federal industrial arena.

The PSA’s first industrial stoppage was by prison officers while the union’s debut general strike amazingly did not take place until 17 November, 1980 when 75% of members went out over the issue of outside appointments

In 1981, the PSA’s Annual Conference began reviewing the four division (“four unions within a union”) structure.

The concept of workplace groups as the basic means of member representation was introduced by decision of the 1983 Conference.

During this restructuring, the election procedure was also altered.

In 1987, the President, Deputy President and Treasurer were elected by a ballot of members for the first time rather than by Annual Conference delegates.

Two years later, the General Secretary and Vice Presidents were elected in the same manner as were the Assistant General Secretaries in 1996.

In March 1994, SPSF members nationwide voted to amalgamate with the Public Sector Union (PSU) which covered Australian Government employees in the public service, ABC, CSIRO and other authorities as well as employees of the ACT and Northern Territory Governments.

The 240,000 strong, Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) officially came into being in July 1994 and replaced the SPSF.

The CPSU is registered under Commonwealth law and has standing before Fair Work Australia.

It is one of the largest trade unions in Australia and the biggest in the education arena.

One of the two major entities under this body is the CPSU (SPSF Group), a federal union registered under Commonwealth legislation (the Fair Work Act) and represents members in Higher Education, State Owned Corporations and some private sector organisations.

All PSA members automatically belong to the CPSU (SPSF Group – NSW Branch).

On 1 January, 1997, the PSA amalgamated with the NSW Professional Officers Association (POA).

The PSA celebrated its centenary on 16 March, 1999.

A large number of the officials, members and other figures who helped shape the union assembled at PSA House and were addressed by Premier, Bob Carr.

In May, 2005, the PSA’s Women’s Council had its 75th birthday.



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