“Break unjust laws”

First female head of Australian Council of Trade Unions shakes things up

Sally McManus during her tenure as ACTU campaign director poses with union volunteers in Sydney. PHOTO: John Feder
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Every trade unionist has been lectured by some union official that they can’t strike because “It’s illegal.” They must have been cheering when Sally McManus, newly elected head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), announced on national television that unions should break unjust laws. This declaration, not usually part of the lexicon of those at the top, ignited howls of protest from government ministers.

McManus became ACTU Secretary in March, the first woman to hold the post. A lifelong unionist, she’s been groomed since the early ‘90s, when she was recruited to a training program for young organisers. She won her new position with broad support from the leadership of the 46 unions affiliated to the Council of Trade Unions.

Taking a stand. Some in the media treated her comments as a blunder. But McManus’s opinion on the right to defy bad laws was clearly a considered position.

She addressed the National Press Club and outlined her vision. Her history teacher in 1988 was amongst the thousands sacked by the cost-cutting New South Wales government. McManus joined the massive solidarity protests that followed and the experience shaped her worldview. She told the press that the teachers’ strike, like all stoppages before strike restrictions were legislated, was illegal, but right. As hundreds of thousands before them, the teachers simply banded together and walked off the job. It’s labour’s most effective weapon.

Conditions today are also harsh, McManus explained, with the gap between rich and poor at a 70-year high. She described wage theft as the new business model of too many employers, and identified tackling casual, contract labour as a priority fight for Australian unions. With wage growth at the lowest since records have been kept, she announced that ACTU would campaign for a 45-dollar per week increase for minimum wage workers. And she pointed to the law breaking by 679 of the biggest corporations that now pay not a single cent in taxes!

Shackled by legislation. The union movement McManus inherits is hardly in great shape. Membership has fallen from 51 percent to 15 percent over the last 35 years, with just 11 percent of private sector workers now in unions. Thirty-nine percent of public workers are unionised.

During the ’80s, the Australian Labor Party and the government made a deal, known as the Accord, in which unions guaranteed labour peace in exchange for some social benefits. Grassroots activist structures were allowed no place in this schema. In 1991, the Labor Party introduced “enterprise bargaining,” which tied wages directly to the profitability of each company. Union solidarity sunk at this betrayal.

So it was a severely weakened union movement that faced the election of a conservative government in 1996. The new administration passed a raft of anti-union laws that imposed unfair fines, restricted union officials entering job sites, tied unions up in endless red tape. This all climaxed in 2005 when the right-wing regime imposed “WorkChoices,” individual contracts that placed the emphasis on individual rather than collective deals.

Such an assault on unions sparked a massive counter-campaign, key to the reactionary government’s defeat in 2007. However, the Labor Party’s replacement, Fair Work Act, was no rescue plan. It severely restricted the legal right to strike. Unionists promptly denounced it as “WorkChoices lite.”

In 2016, the conservative National-Liberal Coalition government that took power in 2013 passed even stronger anti-worker laws, targeting militant construction unions and imposing more state regulation. Today, Australia’s industrial laws are some of the most brutish in the world, breaching countless international labour standards.

Not a moment too soon. The major division in a capitalist society is between the ruling class and working class — each with opposing interests. Employers want to hire labour as cheaply as possible. But workers need to be well-paid and have good working conditions for the necessities of a dignified life. Unions are supposed to be defence organisations for working people to fight for solidarity and train for inevitable battles.

Australia’s growing mass of anti-union laws aims to bust the unions. These laws favour management, impose useless regulations, restrict industry-wide bargaining, and limit when workers can strike and what they can strike about. The goal of big companies and their politicians is ultimately to outlaw solidarity and wipe out working-class self-defence.

Confronting this aggression, Australians roundly welcomed a declaration by a top union official that workers need to defy unjust laws. Sally McManus can certainly talk the talk. This has led to outpourings of hysteria from the top end. Prime Minister Turnbull has called her Sally McAnarchist, and doubts he can work with her.

Unionists will need to defend McManus from politicians’ attacks. But we also must push her to walk the talk. For too long, the strategy of ACTU — of which McManus has been a part —relies on electing Labor Party governments. This won’t change as long as union misleaders keep trying to manage capitalism.

For current and future unionists to make real gains, unions must act independently of the ruling class in order to dismantle unjust industrial laws and revive the right to strike. As the strike rate rises, so will union membership — and union power!

Alison Thorne is a workplace delegate with the Community and Public Sector Union, which is affiliated to the ACTU. Contact her at

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