Belonging to a union was always intrinsic to my belief about my right to dissent to strike against unjust laws that proscribed our democratic freedoms, at work, at home or at play. Unions were quintessential for not just guaranteeing and protecting workers’ rights, but encompassed a broader perspective about ensuring respect for human rights across our social milieu.

In the 1960s as an idealistic adolescent, I was however aware that some unions, particularly the infamous Builders’ Labourers’ Federation and the Painters’ and Dockers’ sometimes employed thuggish tactics, bullying behaviour and violence to manipulate workers to fight a ‘system’ they decried as capitalistically antagonistic to their cause. Corruption seemed rife within these unions besmirching the genuine needs of most other workers simply demanding a ‘fair go’.

Joining the Australian Journalists’ Association, as the body representing journalists was then called (why not a union- I don’t know?) on starting work in the media in 1968, I was fortunate the AJA had already established equal pay for females in the industry. Despite my workplace being overwhelmingly male-dominated, I earned the same wage as my male cadet counterparts. Membership of the AJA was not compulsory and I never had reason to consult the officials over my work entitlements. Moreover, as I worked on a morning newspaper, my employment hours were 2-10pm, including every second Sunday, the pay for these unsociable hours included in my weekly pay packet. I never queried or questioned working late at night or on Sundays, accepting the hours and days of work as innate journalistic practice and the need for 24/7 staff. As there was not a Sunday newspaper in those days, I mostly had a non-work Saturday, giving me time to attend the football, another fervent passion. I thrived off these so-called unsociable hours as I escaped peak period traffic, sitting in a sardine can on a tram en route to my workplace and could enjoy my time off without crowded hassles when most people were snoring loudly in bed. What was problematic was that there was a dearth of entertainment or restaurant venues open later at night in the city.

Certainly, there was discrimination on the newspaper about being female as covering football was verboten and ‘police rounds’ as the crime caper was then regarded, was traditionally male only. (The Sex Discrimination Act wasn’t legislated until 16 years later). Arguing with my male (what else?) boss to report in this domain, he relented after several heated exchanges, only to allot me ‘the graveyard’ shift; 8pm-4am-which decreed I sat in the press room at Victoria Police headquarters alone listening to the police radios broadcast in the room; male colleagues on other newspapers mostly in the pub nearby getting pissed. That first night nothing of import happened on the streets of Melburbia and bored with the monotony of eight hours listening to tedious routine calls to the police, I told my boss the next day I had changed my mind about reporting crime. My male cadet counterparts worked police rounds with far more reasonable hours and changing shifts, but it never crossed my mind to complain to the AJA about ‘unfair’ treatment, deciding I preferred general news which offered more variety and interest.

Arriving in Britain nearly five years later in 1972, I joined the National Union of Journalists as the representational body which had some kind of reciprocity with the AJA, though membership of the NUJ was not mandatory as a working journalist. However, 12 months later, employed in TV as a researcher, I had to confront a particular reality I did not morally or ethically support. My first employer in TV in Yorkshire hired me through the ‘back door’ I soon discovered, as working in TV was controlled by ‘a closed shop’ union called the ACTT. As much as I supported unions, I didn’t acquiesce to a closed-shop mentality, albeit compulsory unionism, believing it infringed people’s freedom of choice, an irony I found hard to reconcile. Researchers needed to be ACTT members, but I and fellow colleagues were labelled ‘editorial assistants’ despite being bona fide researchers; the appellation designed to placate the union and escape censure. At that time, I didn’t care about joining the ACTT but two years later, a London-based director working with me in Yorkshire as a freelancer, imparted in no uncertain terms that I must join the ACTT if I wanted to obtain TV work in London and become a director down the track. It was a catch-22 scenario he pointed out; you couldn’t join the union without a job and you couldn’t get a job without a union ticket. Ludicrous was my response, but with the assistance of his London-based girlfriend and many calls to the union office in London, I ‘fought’ to become a union member while still working in Yorkshire. In terms of pay, I actually earned less as an ACTT member due to the level I was accorded by my Yorkshire TV boss who was vehemently opposed to my battle for union membership and said my years in journalism didn’t count. Simultaneously I also incurred the wrath of more senior management at the company, becoming ‘persona non grata’ as an employee. However, my pay was incidental to having the ACTT ‘ticket’ meaning I could now hopefully obtain a job in London TV and a few months later had the job.

Despite my moral qualms about compulsory unionism, there seemed no other avenue available to advance my career at that time, abandoning too much soul-searching as fruitless and futile. Britain was a very different country to Australia with its laws on industrial action, strikes and democratic protest, leading workers to many demonstrations against the establishment. Unions wielded considerable power in the country, often holding governments to ransom over pay, conditions and working entitlements. Indeed, in 1926, the country had its first and only General Strike, something unheralded in Australia. The Trade Union Congress in Britain was a powerful workforce body and researching a few stories involving the TUC and workers’ rights, my respect for unions only increased as they campaigned relentlessly for fairness and equity for all employees. Their battles ignited much angst and anger within Parliament and politics outside it, often castigated as pushing economic restraint and common sense to their limit by demanding wage increases and improved conditions. Other unions also adopted a ‘closed-shop’ mentality similarly as the ACTT, engendering much consternation not just for me but many others about compulsory unionism which was a personal anathema.

In this 21st century back in Australia, unions and their power are now far more legally proscribed than in the 60s and 70s, with a huge decrease in membership across the socio-economic employee spectrum around the country. Twenty years ago, 40 per cent of workers were union members, but this has now declined to just 15 per cent. Is that decline due to workers leaving the workforce, members not renewing memberships and/or new workers not joining a union at all? I don’t know but it would be pertinent to have that information.

The Australian Labor Party is oft bemoaned by not just Liberal MPs but by millions of Australians as simply the ‘puppet’ of the unions with no independent voice or policies designed without union intervention or influence. All union members contribute their voice to policy formulation. How their views are subsumed in planned legislation is in some ways nebulous, difficult to qualify and quantify in extent. Their influence is however obviously substantial. Certainly, it is well documented that the general secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, Paul Howes, played a crucial role in catapulting Julia Gillard into the Prime Ministership in 2010, with other unions also supporting her challenge to Rudd and instrumental in ensuring she had the ‘numbers’ to defeat him.

With massive union donations to ALP coffers, I have oft conjectured how this financial contribution imbues political policy and practice, with recent events only confusing a complex scenario about the nexus between them. Indeed, a recent article in the Herald Sun detailed how donations to “prop up the Labor Party (for the 2016 Federal election)…plunged some of the nation’s most powerful unions into financial loss.” For example, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) donated $948.726 to the ALP, also handing the party $1.8 million in ‘affiliation fees.” SDA national secretary Gerard O’Dwyer said: “The union is open in its support of a political party that has committed to protecting workers’ take-hone pay.” Other unions have donated close to a million dollars too, also recording losses in their 2015-16 budgets. Without doubt, these donations help shape political choices and outcomes within the ALP, but at the same time, many big businesses similarly donate to the Liberal Party et al, with political donations now a focus of public and political discourse, another issue to write about later.

But are unions a potent political force in their own right? Moreover, what exactly should their role be? With just 15 per cent of workers union members now, how significant is union membership and the role of unions per se? A 32-year-old male friend of mine recently told me he had never belonged to a union as he accrued all the benefits of union deals without needing membership. Working in the Victorian Public Service, he felt no pressure to join the union or ‘waste’ money on membership fees, enjoying the same beneficial outcomes as other union members. It was the same scenario for me when I worked at a TAFE in Victoria in 2001-07 benefiting from deals negotiated by unions without forgoing union membership fees. It seems that my friend and I are not the only ones choosing not to join a union. Why that is should be a subject for a comprehensive socio-economic survey.

Is it because of disparaging perspectives of unions today, negative attitudes by some people towards unions that haven’t changed over decades or is it that unions are perceived as irrelevant, even redundant in 2017? According to an article in the ANU student newspaper, WORONI, when penalty rates were first introduced in Australia in 1947, The Goulburn Evening Post on April 1 claimed it was time for the Government to seriously consider the “lawless strikes and general contempt for responsibilities to the community as a whole” that the unions had. WORONI further asserts that “seven decades on…the remarks about unions remain the same…”

My own ‘love affair’ with union membership collapsed in the early 1990s when as a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), I consulted a senior union official about a prior pay issue, putting it in writing and spelling out my query very lucidly. Ringing him several times, he failed to return my calls and answer my routine question. Moreover, as an MEAA member which I joined when I began work as a casual reporter at Leader Community Newspapers, part of the Murdoch stable, (I still romanticised union power and integrity),  I was ‘ripped off’ and exploited in my job as a casual working five days a week without sick leave or holiday pay. Finding out myself I was legally entitled to be a permanent part-timer after more than three months working five days a week which would have earned me sick leave and holiday pay, I was cautiously circumspect in my approach about the illegality of my causal status and didn’t seek union assistance. Why?  Because I knew the company was so anti-union that any ruction I caused would have only resulted in being dismissed. MEAA union officials in my workplace were castigated as trouble-makers and treated appallingly, and despite being urged to consult the union over my ‘unfair’ conditions of employment, I chose to bide my time instead, getting my own back when offered a full-time, staff job three years after I first started work there. I then took days off for no reason and claimed sick leave, playing them at their own ‘sick’ game as I had already determined to resign. Indeed, I never forgot my experience in Yorkshire and how fighting to join the union made me ‘unwelcome’. But I proved my point at Leader Newspapers about being a credible and good journalist, quitting as a full-time staff employee about four months later without recourse to the union when it suited me. Sadly, unions were a dirty word in that company and it wasn’t the only company that entertained this attitude. Furthermore, I also consulted another MEAA union official about a more complex issue relating to ‘discrimination’ only to be rebuffed and rejected. It was the demise of unions for me, failing in their supposed ‘care’ about a ‘fair go’ for this worker and duly ending my membership of that union, never joining another again.

On an impersonal level however, I still adhere to the importance of unions in a genuine democracy with union power back in the spotlight with the 2013-15 Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance & Corruption. This commission, condemned as a “political witch hunt” by some Labor MPs, including Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, who gave evidence to it, found some breaches of legal behaviour by unions but failed to destroy them, engendering Liberal Government legislation to reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) designed, albeit surreptitiously (?), to curb the power of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), notorious for causing industrial trouble and being recalcitrant in industrial relations. This union’s reputation is a sullied one, despite many common sense activities supporting a fair go for its members with few ‘kind’ words ever penned about the union in the media. How valid this is I can only ponder as I don’t believe we receive a true and full narrative about what goes on behind closed doors in its meetings or the raison d’etre behind its position. It seems that one ‘bolshy’ union, however unfairly targeted, can smear most other unions as equally ‘corrupt and troublesome’ so that union membership now seems contrary to sensible work practice for the majority of employees.

Furthermore, the recent appointment of a new ACTU general secretary, Sally McManus, the first female in that position, has also bolstered union focus in the media. With the Fair Work Commission just ruling to reduce Sunday penalty rates for retail and hospitality workers, McManus commented in a televised interview that while she believed in the ‘rule of law’, it was only if that law was fair and just. “But when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it.” I completely concur with her as Australian history reflects, not just about conscription in the late 1960s pre-Whitlam to fight in the war in Vietnam, but in 1998, with the Maritime Union of Australia who ‘fought’ employer Patrick Stevedores and won.

Underlying the issue of breaking the law is how exactly you contrive to ‘break it’ and that can be fraught with combative confrontation and ensuing violence. That should not be permitted to occur. However a sardonic twist is that while ALP Opposition leader Bill Shorten, once general secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, has strongly condemned the FWC’s cut to Sunday penalty rates as ‘unfair’ for low-paid workers, he distanced himself from McManus’ comment about ‘breaking’ unjust laws, implying one could not, should not, do that. “I just don’t agree. If you don’t like a law, if you think a law is unjust, use the democratic process to get it changed… We believe in changing bad laws, not breaking them.” The irony is that as Employment and Workplace Relations Minister in the Gillard Government in 2013, Shorten amended the Fair Work Act 2009 to “specifically require the FWC to review penalty rates as part of the four-yearly review process.” The FWC decision to cut Sunday penalty rates is “therefore a direct result of the review process put in place by Shorten,” The Australian newspaper reported. In my personal perspective of working Sundays nearly 50 years ago and the changing nature of work today beyond a 9-5 mentality, I do not believe higher penalty rates should apply on Sundays. If workers want more supposedly sociable work, they should find a job within those hours, not expect higher rates for working Sundays. If one wants a 9-5 workplace, join the public service, albeit in the lower echelons. Hospitality and retail are well known for weekend work which is as much part of their career landscape as journalism was for me five decades previously.

Irrespective of my view, Shorten’s stance is nothing but a hypocritical violation of his own creation, or “hoisted on his own petard” as one media scribe penned. She is right. But what of McManus? Editorialising on the issue of the rule of law, The Age affirmed that “history is replete with examples of good coming from unjust laws being broken, and of evil coming from unjust laws being observed.” It quoted Dr Martin Luther King, who while in prison in 1963 for resisting a law preventing him from protesting against the appalling treatment of African Americans, said: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” He continued: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

The editorial went onto acclaim “progress comes from civil disobedience (and) There is a profound difference between breaking a law out of greed or the desire to harm someone, and resisting a law that is demonstrably unfair.” While Shorten failed to fully support breaking unjust laws for the common good, Turnbull, according to another article in The Age, was reported as saying in Parliament that McManus “has said that you only have to obey the law if you like it…That is the law for unions! Imagine where we would be if that were the law for everyone. People would only pay tax if they liked it; they would only obey the speed limit if they liked!” Twisting her words to distort her veracity aka fake news, Turnbull’s spin symbolises his own assumptive allusion about what McManus clearly articulated as belief in the ‘rule of law’… “where the law’s fair, where the law’s right, but when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it.” Furthermore, Turnbull’s Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, called McManus a ‘lunatic’ while Defence Industry Minister, Christopher Pyne, accused her of spreading “anarcho-Marxist claptrap;” unions once more a dirty word and besmirched as dangerous, evil and mad in this country.

Commenting sensibly on Australia’s industrial reality in 2017, ABC journalist, Stephen Long, which I read online and am unsure as to whether it was broadcast, raised the issue which I hitherto was unsure about: namely, what our current laws relating to workers’ protests and the right to strike are. McManus told the ABC in her televised interview that the right to strike in Australia was “far too restrictive”, adding “It shouldn’t be so hard for workers in our country to be able to take industrial action when they need to.” Indeed, in an article I did read in The Australian, McManus said Australia had some of the most restrictive laws in the developed world. According to Long, and I can only agree as I’ve read very little about these restrictions, “it’s surprising there’s been so little analysis on where Australia’s laws on industrial action sit compared to international norms.” Indeed!Maybe it’s actually not at all surprising because union is a ‘dirty’ word and industrial action deplored for whatever issue yet, ironically, the media discourse about freedom of speech has been rampant in attempts to change the 18C law in the Race Discrimination Act. Apparently, some freedoms in a democracy are deemed more precious than others. Suffice to say 18c was not changed.

Does anyone really care about genuine freedom to strike or protest against unjust laws or is it that our media degrades union members as evil miscreants without interest in the facts or understanding their role? Long presents the evidence that under international law, the right to strike has been recognised as a fundamental human right since early days after World War 11. He continues “The restrictions Australia has placed on that right place us at odds with international conventions (what else is new if you consider the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru which the UN has condemned as a violation of human rights)- a point made repeatedly by the UN agency that oversees labour standards, the International Labor Organisation (ILO).”

According to one of Australia’s foremost experts on labour law, Adelaide University Professor Andrew Stewart, for the past 20 to 30 years the ILO has been telling “governments of both political persuasions that we are in breach of international labour standards” but both Labor and Liberal governments have quietly ignored this ILO warning. So much for Shorten claiming democracy is about changing bad laws and as well this disrespect for the ILO philosophy makes me consider why the unions haven’t agitated for changing these restrictive laws and whether the millions they donate politically to the ALP actually translate into significant power. Furthermore, I can only ponder whether previous Labor Governments have been too frightened to use the ‘democratic process’ to change these laws because with their own subtle cowardice, many Labor MPs don’t want to be seen as openly supporting unions because it’s infra dig and would be perceived negatively by the populace. Many people believe union is a ‘dirty word’, reluctant to apportion unions with rights that are internationally applauded as protecting and enshrining workers’ interests. Additionally, if only 15 per cent of workers are currently union members, who do unions represent? And why has there been such a drastic decline in membership over the past twenty years? Are they now superfluous for the vast majority of workers and if so, why? What is their raison d’etre in 2017 and beyond?

Trying to address some of these pertinent issues for union relevance, McManus said in a speech to the National Press Club that Australia’s workplace laws were broken, that the greed of some was out of control and that the power imbalance had to be addressed. She claimed present insecurity of work and inequalities were her top priorities. Stressing her view that there was a need to strike the right balance between taking dramatic action and collaborating with employers, she also understood the need to communicate with the broader electorate and use more subtle forms of industrial action to achieve results. Strike action she affirmed is a last resort. Indeed, she believes the public knows what the problems are and “we’re aiming to change public opinion so that this (a $45 minimum wage increase) doesn’t become the political football that it has been. “ Disagreeing with her belief that the public knows what the problems are, I contend that it is only low-paid workers who want and need a minimum wage increase and while they well know what the problems are, how many other people, and I’d say that’s the majority, actually have a clue how much these people earn and what those earnings can buy and pay for? It wasn’t that long ago that former PM Howard couldn’t tell the public how much a litre of milk cost! People tend to live and mix in their own social milieu and the outrage of asking for a $45 increase to the minimum wage has been furious, not just by Liberal comfortably off voters. I know personally that within my own family, my mother and sisters had no idea what a pittance I earned in London and then back here. They actually weren’t interested, simply regarding my smoking habit as the cause of my poverty. Yet, I rarely eat out in a restaurant or drink in a bar, allowing myself just a couple of small glasses of $5 a bottle wine at home. It’s my choice. My friends didn’t know or care either and living on the dole at times didn’t even register in their frame of reference. If this is within my own family and friends, what of others whose financially secure lives aren’t even confronted, challenged or known by those doing it not just tough, but virtually ‘impossibly’? McManus I believe is naive and although she acknowledges the greed and inequality extant in our society, the majority of people couldn’t care less about people existing on or below the poverty line including those working. It’s the “I’m alright, Jack” mantra ignoring the “fair go” mantra this country once adhered to.

Moreover, McManus has not elaborated in the media I’ve perused (perchance she hasn’t been asked?) about what Long tackles as our restrictive industrial laws, and according to him, the UK and even the US afford more liberty to workers to take industrial action. In Australia, industrial action is ‘generally unlawful”, he affirms. Workers have only limited rights to take “protected” industrial action free from threat of fines, monetary damages or dismissal. The legal and administrative hoops for unions and workers before taking industrial action are “onerous.” The central justification for industrial action is that it can only take place during a defined enterprise bargaining period in pursuit of a new collective agreement. The union has to apply to the industrial tribunal for a protected action order, which can only be granted if the union demonstrates it has been genuinely trying to reach agreement. Then, a secret ballot conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission has to be conducted with at least 50 per cent of workers involved voting in favour of taking industrial action. In the ballot, the union has to specify the form of the industrial action and give the employer three days’ notice before pursuing any action during which time the employer can apply to a tribunal or court to quash the strike.

There are also severe limits on what workers can strike for that are at odds with international law. Political strikes here are a “complete no-no.” Stopping work in support of, or in protest against laws that directly impact on workers’ rights or living standards is completely unlawful. So where is any ‘freedom of association’ to protest? In authoritarian even totalitarian countries there is virtually no such freedom, yet, Australia, particularly Shorten, just said in a democracy we can change ‘bad laws’ through our political process yet the laws in place prohibit that process from happening. Does Shorten even know what the problems really are?

Long believes the issue between Australia’s highly restrictive approach and the ILO’s view of industrial action as a fundamental right is a matter for legitimate debate, but disappointingly, I have yet to read, hear or see this debated in public. The Keating Government first introduced the concept of protected industrial action in 1993, but successive waves of reform by the Howard Government in 1996 and 2005 “severely constrained the right to take industrial action. They did this by limiting the scope for protected action, imposing difficult procedural requirements on its access and ensuring that all unprotected action is regarded as unlawful and subject to an array of remedies,” according to a Research Paper by the Parliamentary Departments, Parliamentary Library Research Publications.

In this perspective, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening industrially in this country, within unions, across business and employers, and more importantly, among workers. I still believe in the integrity of unions and their importance in our society but it seems that most workers no longer believe that philosophy. Whether it’s because they are perceived as evil or simply irrelevant I can only wonder, but maybe McManus needs to initiate a debate about our industrial laws and heighten people’s awareness of how proscribed our rights are industrially in our so-called democracy. Shorten seems no more than a convenient hypocrite, albeit a naive and delusional one at that, who decries the FWC’s decision to cut Sunday penalty rates as unfair to low-paid workers, then slams McManus for advocating breaking ‘unjust’ laws.

What seems more than urgent is a public debate about our industrial landscape so that workers, and that’s most people, actually know what’s going on, understand the ramifications of our laws and can appreciate unions for the good they have achieved for millions of people in this country throughout our history and that the good can and should continue in the future. As the nature of work continues to change with all its insecurity, unions are more significant than ever before to ensure workers’ rights are protected and justice and equity prevail. Some unions officials may be thugs, behave corruptly and perpetrate criminal offences, but these few ‘bad’ examples of union practice must not diminish our faith in the importance of unions in a genuine democracy that believes in human rights for us all and even more, a “fair go”.