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Churches, unions and the Ensuring Integrity Bill

Tuesday, 29 October 2019  | Gordon Preece

Introduction: churches and unions

Recent media coverage and caricature often defines unions through the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and its infamous Victorian secretary John Setka. But Setka and CFMEU do not define the mainline union movement. The largest union, in fact, is the nurses’ union, staunchly non-party political, and representing one of the most respected professions. But some Christians are taken in by the caricature and see unions and Christians being at loggerheads.

These Christians are sometimes ignorant of the heritage of Church and Trade Union cooperation. Among the churches, Catholic Social Teaching since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) emphasised the importance of unions and their rights of association in supporting vulnerable workers. 90 years later Pope John Paul II highlighted the importance of unions in his Laborem Exercens (On Human Labour). The ‘shoppies’ union still has strong Catholic connections though not an unblemished record in raising member’s wages. Methodist lay preachers (like some Tolpuddle martyrs and some supporters banished to Australia) and Anglicans like Archbishop William Temple and The Brotherhood of St. Laurence have also strongly supported unions on Christian ‘Socialist’ and social justice grounds. Fair wages weighed heavily on Rev. Dr Martin Luther King’s heart till literally his dying day marching with striking Memphis sanitation workers. Unionists and their church supporters are far from stereotypical Setkas.

How does the EI Bill work?

Against the above broad background we can now address the Morrison government’s proposed Ensuring Integrity Bill. The EI Bill, while ostensibly safeguarding against union abuses, effectively denies their uses and basis of existence. It provides a pathway for interfering in trade unions’ internal workings. If enacted it would provide government, employers or anyone else with ‘sufficient interest’ power to:

  • apply to disqualify union leaders from their roles;
  • more easily de-register or terminate unions;
  • apply to appoint administrators to take over union management; and
  • stop certain union mergers.

Democratic roles and human rights of union(ist)s

Unions generally perform valuable democratic and mediating roles between isolated individuals and the contemporary corporatised State (i.e. State and allied big corporate entities). They help maintain and grow wages and develop safer and more secure conditions in workplaces and for family life, as US research shows. Democracies require checks and balances of power. To attack appropriate powers of unions in ways not required of corporates is to tear the fabric of an egalitarian Australian society. Australia’s unions have been instrumental in recognising workers’ rights, such as the eight-hour day, annual leave, equal pay, penalty rates for unsocial working hours, compulsory super and better Workplace Health and Safety practices. Many people (not only unionists) owe their lives and livelihoods to unions. More broadly, their concern for the common good has often overflowed to society’s most vulnerable through social justice movements promoting greater minority recognition and rights.

The EI Bill ignores most of this in attacking the very essence of union existence – freedom of association. The right to freely form associations of members around shared core values and concerns is fundamental to democracy. It applies to other mediating community organisations like churches, school P&Cs, sports clubs, businesses, neighbourhood organisations etc. It is an internationally recognised human right, akin to freedom of religion, belief, conscience and expression.

Article 23(4) of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights affirms that: ‘Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his [their] interests.’ But any right of association in isolation lacks substance unless members can seek their lawful and legitimate goals without unjustifiable restraints or interference. The context of the government’s proposed legislation, after increased attacks on freedom of the press, religion and whistle-blowers regarding ASIO, ADF and ATO, gives it an ominous overlay. The scent of Statism is in the air, contrary to conservatism’s commitment to relatively small government and independent mediating associations.


Catholic Religious Australia have rightly said:

Given the current instability of much of Australia’s contemporary work scene: increasing casualisation of jobs, regional unemployment, seasonal work, stagnating wages, 457 visa holders, unequal pay for women and a variety of global influences, the support and protection of unions is paramount (see here and here).

They also noted that the Morrison Government’s Ensuring Integrity Bill reduced union rights and imposed ‘double standards’, as the same requirements were not faced by corporations.

The EI Bill is a disproportionate response to a few outliers like the infamous John Setka, and an opportunistic attack, like the attacks upon union Industry Funds who came out smelling like roses, safeguarding and growing their worker members assets in contrast to other Super Funds and banks the government sought to protect from facing a Royal Commission. The Ensuring Integrity Bill itself lacks integrity and is a poorly aimed hammer, designed to crush a nut.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos; Director of the Centre for Religion and Social Policy (RASP), University of Divinity; and Chair and Executive of the Melbourne Anglican Diocese Social Responsibilities Committee. These opinions are his, not necessarily his employers.

This article was first published in The Melbourne Anglican’s print edition in October 2019.

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