Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one, But the union makes us strong.(from Solidarity Forever, R Chaplin (1915))
This chapter deals with the separate but closely related topics of industrial action, unions, and the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption (also referred to as TURC for Trade Union Royal Commission) conducted by the Hon. JD Heydon AC QC throughout 2014 and 2015.
It considers the forms that industrial action takes, its consequences, and the law as it relates to industrial action, including restrictions and sanctions. It compares Australian law to international law as it relates to principles such as freedom of association.
Industrial action is a very public manifestation of collective union action and therefore the treatment of these topics in the chapter is closely related.
The legal status of unions and their regulation at both Federal and State level is also considered, using specific examples – such as the series of problems that beset the Health Services Union in recent times – to illustrate the regulatory regime's powers and challenges.
Other constraints on union action, including the right of entry regime imposed by legislation, are also considered because, in both legal and practical terms, they impact on union operations.
In considering TURC, the focus will be on the two major aspects of the Commission's work:
(i) the matters dealt with by the Commission in its hearings; and (ii) the law reform recommendations arising from the Commission's work.
Before dealing with unions and the regulation of their activities, it is important to have a clear notion of what unions are and what they do. In essence, a union is:
an organisation of workers or employees who have joined together to achieve common goals. These goals can include seeking higher pay and better working conditions, fighting for job security and protecting the integrity of a trade.
As the quotation at the beginning of the chapter suggests, the effectiveness of unions, and indeed their fundamental purpose, stems from the notion of collective action – that the actions of the many in support of particular objectives provide greater bargaining power in negotiations and in disputes.
While their coverage of the workforce has declined, there remain approximately 2 million members of federally registered employee organisations (that is, unions), in addition to those that remain registered under State jurisdictions.