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‘Rampant Lawlessness’: how ‘radical’ is breaking unjust laws?

Sunday, 3 September 2017  | Gordon Preece

Comments in March by Sally McManus, Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), about breaking unjust laws (ABC’s 7:30 Report, 15/3/17) stirred quite a reaction. Here is what she said:

I believe in the rule of law where the law is fair and the law is right. But when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it.

Christopher Pyne, Liberal frontbencher and Leader of the House, responded by saying that McManus’s comments were ‘the kind of anarcho-Marxist claptrap we used to hear from anarchists at Adelaide University in the 1980s’. Tell us what you really think, Chris! Yet even Labor leader Bill Shorten, whose history as a union leader has often been targeted by the Liberal government, was quick to distance himself from McManus and the unions.

But was McManus’ comment really that radical?

In a statement released by the ACTU the next day, she explained:

There is rampant lawlessness in the workplaces of Australia and this is occurring in the form of chronic underpayments of workers, exploitation of visa workers and workplace practices that put the safety and lives of people at risk.

She added that workers must have the courage to fight these practices.

Little has been said by Christians in response to McManus’ comments. This may be because Christians have generally been focused on bedroom ethics and not so diligent with business and boardroom ethics. Sunday and Monday often stay siloed, rather than just being a day apart and shaping each other.

Romans 12:1-2 says to present our bodies as living sacrifices, being renewed in our minds, and that this is our rational or true worship. Our work expresses our service and worship to God. And when Jesus calls us to worship and follow and give our lives to Him, this includes our whole lives. It’s about putting our bodies on the line during the week, giving legs to what we’ve said and sung on Sunday.

It also means having our minds transformed to think Christianly in terms of the mercy and justice of God and in the ways we serve our colleagues, carefully craft our work and actively subject ourselves to all reasonable requests from our bosses. But sometimes we may need to respectfully and submissively disagree, which may involve whistleblowing.

There are many good Christian business people and leaders who have spoken up about various issues and showed great courage, sometimes risking their livelihoods. People like Wilma Gallet, our 2017 Faith and Work Award recipient. Gallet was head of The Salvation Army’s Employment Plus and now heads up the Christian Research Association. The Award Dinner is designed to recognise Christians like Wilma who have put themselves on the line. (Her speech appears in this issue of Perspectives.)

Another recent winner of the Award, former ABC chief Mark Scott, stood up to fellow Christian Tony Abbott to protect the ABC. He is now a leading public servant in education.

I once lost a church youth worker job for standing up for a young volunteer whom the minister had unfairly torn strips off in front of me.

My father died late last year. I dedicated my published PhD to him. His mantra was: ‘If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing properly’. He ran a Concrete Products and Home Improvements business. He was the owner and boss but Dad was always out in the yard lifting heavy concrete blocks. As a result, he ended up with a degenerative back. He was literally marking his body by being a servant.

On another personal note, I remember my son on his apprenticeship working only a foot away from a live wire without any protection. I prayed like mad every day when he headed off to work. Our workplace theology needs to address both the top and bottom of the work scale.

And so, we return to McManus’s accusation of rampant lawlessness in the workplace by employers: there is often tension between employers and employees and a need for a balancing power and justice in the workplace. This isn’t a radical idea but a reasonably conservative one of checks and balances. As Lord Acton, the great liberal thinker, famously said, ‘Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’. If you have companies with complete economic power, and crumbling union power, over time wages tend to go down, which is what we’re seeing now. Indeed, Donald Trump was elected in part because of disaffected Americans in largely manufacturing areas whose wages had shrunk or jobs disappeared offshore. The IMF, not renowned for radicalism, recently stated that the single most effective way to decrease the gap between rich and poor is to increase union representation. Union membership is critical in this respect, as it means the company has to negotiate with a group of workers rather than isolated individuals. Pope Leo XIII’s pioneering 1991 social encyclical Rerum Novarum upheld the rights of workers to associate and, by implication, if necessary, to withdraw their labour, i.e. to strike. This became the basis for the Australian industrial settlement for a century, originated by Methodist judge Justice Higgins in the 1907 Sunshine Harvester case.

Household names such as Apple, Google and Starbucks offload their tax payments by shuffling profits between their different global entities so that they don’t really show. Closer to home, we’ve seen how Domino’s and 7-Eleven have mistreated and underpaid workers, and exploitation of foreign workers on temporary visas. But as Christian businessman Max de Pree of Herman Miller furniture said, ‘We breathe to live, we don’t live to breathe’. Proportionate profit is the breath that enables companies to survive and jobs to thrive.

Conversely, there’s a problem when unions have too much power and laws are not sufficiently enforced, leading to industrial blackmail and corruption as alleged with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and proven in the Health Services Union leaders’ court cases.

The Bible has a lot to say to both camps.

Employers need to pay their workers adequately and on time. A sample of laws in the Old Testament illustrates:

You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or a sojourner. You shall surely return the pledge to him, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. (Deut. 24:14 cf. Amos 2:8)

For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain”, and “The worker deserves his hire or pay”. (1 Timothy 5:18)


Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. … behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts you have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

On the other hand, any protest against wrongdoing needs to be submissive, in the sense of being orderly and respectful and willing to take the punishment if the legal authorities determine that innocent civilians have suffered because of strike action, for example.

In a way, we can assess strikes as a form of coercion by comparing them with just war criteria, which state that innocent civilians should not suffer, we should try negotiation first and any coercive action should be a last resort. This should apply to governments and businesses as well.

Yes, there are times to break unjust laws. Unions should negotiate, give advance notice etc., but if all fails then they should have the right to protest unjust laws as Jim Casey, former firefighter union official, demonstrates from their 2012 strike in NSW (see ‘A Fiery Defence Of Sally McManus’, New Matilda, 19th March 2017). The NSW Coalition government’s workers compensation ‘reforms’ had been designed to save money for employers and insurers, at the expense of injured workers [and unfairly favoured volunteers]. Casey wrote:

The Fire Brigade Employees’ Union met with FRNSW management. We met with the Minister. We raised it in the media. We did all the things you’re meant to do. The government was not listening. And why would they? They had an overwhelming majority in the Legislative Assembly and they simply didn’t care what we thought.

So we struck. We took illegal industrial action to stop an unjust law from passing the NSW upper house.

Our action was successful. An exemption for firefighters and paramedics introduced by the Greens got the support of the cross-bench, on the back of our strike, at the eleventh hour.

I am yet to meet anyone who begrudges NSW firefighters decent workers’ compensation protection. But we needed to break the law to achieve this outcome. No-one was going to give it to us, no matter how nicely we asked.

Ordinary workers have been breaking unjust laws in this country since Europeans arrived. … And it’s not just the union movement.

Australians have stood up again and again, peacefully but still against the law of the day, on questions of racism, sexism, the environment, equality, and more. These actions and the actions taken by workers, mums and dads, environmentalists and farmers have made a society that, for all its flaws, is the envy of many for its expectation of fairness, and its generosity. Non-violent direct action has played a pivotal role in our history and will continue to do so into the future.

That history is exemplified by blacks who got to where they did in the US through orderly civil disobedience, breaking unjust laws but appealing to the law above the law – the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Bible. Let’s not forget the ‘Rev.’ in Dr Martin Luther King’s name, whose justification to his many white clergy critics for his arrest for non-violent disobedience is contained in his wonderful Letter from Birmingham Jail. Remember too that many founders of the modern union movement, e.g. the Tolpuddle martyrs and Labor party founder Keir Hardie, were believers. There’s also Ghandi, who practised the non-violent resistance of Sermon on the Mount, and Nelson Mandela, who defeated apartheid.

The right to protest isn’t a blank cheque, though, as McManus later acknowledged. She also needs to address union corruption. So as Christians we need to tackle corruption in a consistent way, across the board, from boardroom to caucus, or lawlessness will be truly rampant.

Gordon Preece is the Director of Ethos, Director of RASP and former member of the Victorian Churches and Trade Union Committee. He has been involved in the recent movement against the reduction of weekend penalty rates.

This article is based on an interview with Vision Christian Radio’s 20twenty Program. It will also appear in the forthcoming Zadok issue on 'Precarious and Predatory World'. You can subscribe to Zadok here.


Helen Kane
September 5, 2017, 10:38AM
i would only like to add congratulations to Gordon for the quality of his talk, and the joining of the social justice issues with the values of Christianity. I like it.
Claire Dawson
September 9, 2017, 2:45PM
Thanks Gordon for your thoughtful reflection. The pursuit of justice often involves some sort of battle. I still think there is a ministry waiting for some churches / organisations willing to provide support to scared or reluctant whistle-blowers... surely this would be a valid expression of seeking the Kingdom? Imagine stepping out in speaking truth to power knowing that a loving, gracious, generous community had your back?

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