Workers breaking bad laws? It’s the reign of terror all over again

Union flags today. Bloody anarchy tomorrow.

By now you must have heard. The ACTU has been taken over by a terrorist spouting, in Christopher Pyne’s words, “anarchist Marxist clap trap” about destroying the rule of law, and presumably replacing it with a reign of terror in which CFMEU thugs will drag innocent bosses and Liberal politicians to the guillotine.

At least, that is what I gather from the response by politicians (including Labor leader Bill Shorten) and media to new ACTU secretary Sally McManus’s March 15 interview with Leigh Sales on 7.30, where she defended the right to break bad laws and pointed out many gains for working people had been won by “non-violent so-called illegal industrial action”.

This, apparently, means McManus does not support the “rule of law”. Because if the rule of law means anything, it surely must mean not struggling to ensure laws protect working peoples’ interests.

You could point out that McManus is actually just repeating the ACTU’s policy of supporting the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union’s campaign against the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which holds secret police-like power to target the union for legitimate activities in a context of ever-growing restrictions on workers’ rights to take industrial action.

Apparently, if you believe that disobedience in response to bad laws can be justified, then you are an “anarcho-Marxist”, just like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, that guy who stood in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square and anyone who has ever decided to fuck waiting for the little green man (or woman if you are in liberated Melbourne) and just cross the street when it’s safe.

McManus’s comments seemed to stun some media commentators. Fairfax journalist Jacqueline Maley tweeted: “I can’t believe she said that!”

Yeah it is asdtonishing, isn't it? The head of the trade union movement, which only exists as a result of illegal activity that forced reforms to legally recongise unions, saying sometimes bad laws should be broken. What next, a multinational corporation saying sometimes taxes should be dodged? 

Shocked Insiders host Barrie Cassidy wondered on Twitter: “How soon will she recant?” The idea McManus might not actually recant just didn't seem to enter the veteran journalist’s head, presumably being used to only dealing with the spineless blobs of jelly that pass for the “politically and media savvy”.

McManus’s actual response to the hysteria turned out to be a statement standing by her comments, listing superannuation, Medicare, the weekend and minimum wages as just some of the social reforms won by "so-called illegal industrial action".

Cassidy also tweeted: “There’s a difference between agitating to change laws and disobeying them. So individuals decide for themselves? There’s a word for that.”

McManus, of course, was not speaking as an “individual”, but as head of a collective of working people. Cassidy also failed to mention the actual word, but the list of people he thinks it applies to must be very long indeed.

Australian history is filled with huge social gains achieved by struggles that involved breaking laws. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union tweeted a long list involving unions.

In Sydney, historic buildings and green spaces were saved by an alliance of the Builders and Labourers Federation and community activists — some of them literally anarchists and Marxists — in campaigns featuring many arrests.

Sydney just celebrated the Mardi Gras, a huge event begun when members of the LGBTI community marched on their streets to celebrate their then-illegal lifestyles — and were bashed and arrested for their troubles.

The idea that respecting the rule of law means all laws must be obeyed no matter what doesn’t pass the most basic logic test — unless you think that, until homosexual activity was finally decriminalised in Tasmania in 1997, gay people on the Apple Isle should have restricted themselves to simply holding hands in private.

What the shrill voices ignore about McManus’s comments is they were directly related to issues of safety. The increasingly totalitarian, police state-esque laws dictating the ability of workers to organise on building sites has direct consequences for safety in a notoriously unsafe industry.

The restrictions on industrial action mean workers on an unsafe building sites who walk off face prosecution and large fines (larger applied to companies found responsible for a worker's death) for "illegal" industrial action. Restrictions on unions’ right to enter workplaces make it difficult for unions to inspect sites to ensure laws on safety are enforced. Yes, it might come as a shock to Cassidy and Pyne but, sometimes, employers don’t actually follow the law.

I know. Bosses who put profit before people. Hard to believe, but maybe there’s no Santa Claus either. Maybe fairies don’t live at the bottom of the garden and possibly members of our political class are cynical hypocrites who deliberately distort the arguments of a trade union leader to score cheap points. I suppose anything’s possible.

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