Contributed by Joe Montero
Incoming Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary, Sally McManus, has had the courage to come out and publicly state, on the first day of her job that she supported the idea that the law must sometimes be broken.
She was immediately condemned by spokespeople for employer organisations and political opponents. This is par for the course. The trouble is that the leader of the opposition joined in sinking in the boot. He should know better. Even if political expediency suggests pulling away from endorsing any form of law breaking, he knows very well that as a union secretary, he had to, just say, be a little creative at times, if his union was to carry out its job in representing its members.
The reality is that Australia has particularly restrictive laws that are purposely designed to deny the right of union representation and to openly favours one side in an industrial dispute. At the extreme end, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) exists to bully workers and their representatives in one industry, treat them differently to other citizens and deny normal legal process. Now the government intends to make it even worse. It is no secret that there is a wish to extend the ABCC’s content to other industries.
Even short of the ABCC, industrial action is only legal if it concerns negotiation over a new agreement for the enterprise. If an employer has unjustly treated someone or put someone at risk of injury or death, action against it is illegal. Even legal action is only allowed within a determined protection period, which the employer can have terminated at any time. Only a handful of prescribed rights can be put into any agreement. Other important matters are made illegal. Those working in the public sector have further restrictions. Industrial action in support of others is illegal. Achieving agreements across employers in an industry (pattern bargaining) is also illegal, as is disrupting an employer’s supply chain.
On top of this, a series of formal requirements set up roadblocks. An application will be down for days by the need to fill in paperwork and longer, by the requirement to allow the authorities to organise a formal ballot. In the case of a safety breach, for example, where a quick response is needed, it may be too late to prevent injury or death. Arguably, the law has contributed to the rise of deaths at work.
Australia’s industrial relations laws are in breach of International Labour Organisation standards. This is the minimum agreed to by the United Nations. They are unfair full stop.
Australian experts on the right to strike, including Shae McCrystal, argue that these restrictions fail to comply with the right to freedom of association.
The Geneva Conventions after World War Two went to far as to suggest that bad laws must be broken, when obeying them makes you complicit.
Sally McManus was speaking in this context and continuing a tradition that dates to the indigenous resistance to white colonisation and the Eureka stockade. Australia was built on opposition to bad laws.
Instead of being attacked, Sally McManus deserves praise for basically saying that she does not believe in standing aside in the face of injustice. When the government cries out against “lawlessness.” It is repeating the line of every tyrant. What it doesn’t like is its laws being challenged.
Sally McManus says she wants to roll back these restrictions. In doing so she is doing the job she is paid to do. After all, she does represent the unions and she has a duty to defend them.