16/03/2017 2:36 PM AEDT | Updated 16/03/2017 4:15 PM AEDT

This Is Why It's Sometimes Important For 'Unjust Laws' To Be Broken

Eight-hour work day, holiday pay, sick leave and maternity leave: all because of breaking 'unjust laws'.

'Unlawful' strike action helped form the very basis of Australia's employment system.
The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images
'Unlawful' strike action helped form the very basis of Australia's employment system.

The eight-hour work day, employer-contributed superannuation, holiday pay, sick leave, maternity leave, penalty rates, equal pay; you enjoy these rights, which we now take for granted, because people before you broke 'unjust laws' and fought for them.

On the ABC's 7.30 program Wednesday, new secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus,said "I don't think there's a problem" with people breaking "unjust laws". In an interview with host Leigh Sales, McManus was asked if the ACTU would "consider distancing itself from the CFMEU" following a string of legal cases where the construction, forestry, mining and energy union had taken unprotected industrial action (that is, striking or altering work arrangements without the approval of the Fair Work Commission). Sales asked McManus whether she believed in "the rule of law".

"I believe in the rule of law where the law is fair, when the law is right. But when it's unjust, I don't think there's a problem with breaking it," the union boss replied.

The reaction from government ministers and some in the media has taken this quote way out of context. McManus was not advocating robbing banks, murder or breaking the road rules; she was talking about unions taking strike action, which, under most circumstances in Australia's workplace law system, is illegal.

The only time strike action is legal is during enterprise bargaining for a new workplace agreement, and only then after a ballot of workers has been taken and the Fair Work Commission has been notified. In all other circumstances where strike action is considered -- like when a worker is injured or killed because of unsafe conditions, or management announces job cuts or unexpected changes to conditions outside of a bargaining period -- it is illegal to strike.

Workers, of course, still do. That's called unprotected action, or a 'wildcat strike', and fines or other punishments can be levelled against the union or against workers personally.

"Australian laws on safety are out of step with international norms. There's a very narrow definition of the right to strike, it's a right meant to be enjoyed under international law but it's extraordinarily narrow," the CFMEU's Dave Noonan told The Huffington Post Australia.

"It illustrates how fair work legislation is broken. [Unprotected action] is a last resort, you don't have any of those options to go through those ridiculous hurdles in the Fair Work legislation. You respond to serious circumstances and take action and there's potential consequences," added Paul Murphy of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

"Last year there was an investigation of more than 500 Fairfax journalists potentially being fined $10,000 each, and other unions have been on that receiving end more than us... the right to withdraw labour is a human right but the law here is broken and doesn't adequately protect that right."

Of course, strike action is disruptive for everyone. Striking workers don't get paid, the companies they work for are affected, and if it is an important industry -- for instance, public transport, or teachers -- the public can be greatly affected. As the unions say, it is a last resort. So why is it used, and what does it achieve?

Australian unions have been quick to point out that some of the most basic workplace entitlements, such as sick leave and an eight-hour work day, exist today because of unlawful action taken by employees in the past. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union published a series of tweets outlining some of the union achievements:

"Australia has been built by working people who have had the courage to stand up to unfair and unjust rules and demand something better. Every single Australian benefits from superannuation, Medicare, the weekend and minimum wages -- these were all won by our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents taking non-violent so-called illegal industrial action," McManus said in an ACTU statement on Thursday.

"Working people only take these measures when the issue is one of justice, like ensuring workers' safety on worksites, a fair day's pay for a fair day's work or to uphold and improve rights for working people."

Noonan agreed.

"Every single condition won by unions was achieved largely by unlawful industrial action. The eight-hour day, the first in the world; four weeks annual leave; superannuation. These all pre-dated the laws around protected action, and all constituted unlawful industrial action at the time," he said.

Tim Ayres, NSW secretary for the AMWU, also chipped in.

"For all of our history, walking off the job has been illegal... It's just common sense that unions undertake industrial action. That is what a democratic society looks like," he told HuffPost Australia.

So if you're worried about unions breaching "unjust laws", take a moment to remember your holiday pay, superannuation, sick leave and working conditions are things from which we now all benefit.