Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2019

On Fairness, by Sally McManus (Little Books on Big Ideas)

I’ve never been all that keen on joining things, but I always belonged to my union.  And I was quite pleased when my loyalty was rewarded with an official AEU certificate when I retired; I hadn’t imagined that anyone would notice.  But these days, with union membership in decline, perhaps 35 years’ loyalty is special.  All I know is, that without the union fighting tooth and nail on our behalf, governments of either stripe would never have given teachers a decent pay rise and our conditions would only ever have got worse.  It’s not that they’re necessarily malevolent, (though one of them certainly was), it’s that there’s so many of us.  Even the smallest pay rise is a big hit to a state education budget; any reduction in teaching conditions (which are really learning conditions, of course) saves a lot of money.  The same is true of any workers serving the public: nurses, police, paramedics, firefighters, anyone working in public transport — and of course the public service itself, because they all have the same pay scales across all multiple departments.  Any time governments have blown the budget, these workers bear the brunt of the budget cuts and have to fight for a pay rise.

But Sally McManus in this interesting little book On Fairness points out something else: in economies where jobs in a strong public sector are available, private employers have to compete for workers by offering comparable pay and conditions. (p.60) If that’s the case, it seems to me that it’s actually in the interests of anyone who works for a salary to support the high rates of unionisation in the public sector: private sector workers can sit back and wait for a union to win better pay and conditions, and take the benefit, thank you very much. But no, you are more likely to hear them repeating the shock-jock mantras: ‘bloated public service’; overpaid and underworked’; ‘fat cat bureaucrats’ and ‘union thuggery holding the state to ransom’.   So I really hope this little book is widely read, because it sets the record straight…

Sally McManus created history when in 2017 she became the first woman to be the secretary of the ACTU; together with Ged Kearney as President (2010-2018) and Michele O’Neil (2018-) she has shattered the cliché of the union thug and opened the way for a new era in Australian unionism.  On Fairness is the latest in MUP’s Little Books on Big Ideas series.  At under 100 pages in a book with the dimensions of a greeting card, these books can be read in no time at all, and always provide something worthwhile to think about.

McManus begins with a transcript of the interview she did on 7.30, four hours after she became ACTU secretary.  Sales got her ‘gotcha’ moment because McManus doesn’t play games with the truth:

… in a memorable interview on ABC’s 7.30 last year […] McManus provoked outrage and condemnation from the government when she declared that she had no problem with workers breaking the law if the laws were “unjust”.

“Our current laws are broken,” she said in the interview.

McManus says the answer was unplanned. “I got a whole heap of media training, right, got a whole half day just practicing how to deal with the media, all these weird techniques like pivoting and deflecting and stuff,” she says. “But I’ve spent my whole life standing up in front of working people and telling them the truth, and if your job is to do that – and even if it’s not what they want to hear, your job is to be honest.” (SMH, 13/10/18)

That authenticity comes through in the book time and again.  From her personal history to the history of the movement and its historic battles: McManus reminds us that we owe gains like superannuation and workers compensation for workplace injury to unionists who achieved them at some personal risk.

From the origins of modern trade unions during the Industrial Revolution, to the Australia of today, workers have always confronted a threat of state-sanctioned punishment when they’ve decided to take action in their own industrial interest. Violence, the police, mercenaries and the military have been used across time and across the world to bust strikes, persecute union leaders and suppress worker protests. (p.13)

There are cases of extreme violence against unionists, but more often there are the other anti-union, strike-breaking tactics with which we are familiar:

… exorbitant fines, jail sentences, raids, mass sackings, lengthy litigations, social ostracism, propaganda campaigns, organised harassment and bullying, as well as vilification in the media, to punish workers taking action in the interests of industrial fairness for themselves and in the interests of a fairer society. (p. 15-16)

McManus points out that the rampant lawlessness attributed to unionists belongs more fairly in the workplaces of Australia, where there is chronic underpayment of workers; exploitation of visa workers and workplace practices that put the health and safety of people at risk.  

The unfairness could not be more apparent.  Australian law punishes the strike action that demands fair wages, safe workplaces, job security and equal treatment for workers, and these strikes occur due to an employer’s refusal to provide these things.  When employers break the law and steal wages, it’s in the interest of personal greed at the expense of working people.

It grates deeply on most Australians that there is one law that applies to rich elites and another, harsher standard applied to the rest of us.  (p.90)

It does indeed. It certainly sickens me that no state in Australian adequately punishes employers whose negligence causes deaths in the workplace so there is no significant deterrent to their criminality.

Is it okay for ordinary Australians to break the law if that law imposes unfair restrictions to their workplace pay and conditions?  In On Fairness Sally McManus argues cogently that civil disobedience is part of the armoury against unjust laws, and it is important to stand up for the principle of fairness because it’s integral to the kind of society we want to have.

BTW on a related theme, there is a most interesting article this week at Inside Story: see here to read Climate Change and the New Work Order by Frances Flanagan.

Author: Sally McManus
Title: On Fairness
Series: Little Books on Big Ideas
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2019, 100 pages
ISBN: 9780522874853
Review copy courtesy of MUP.

Available in all good book shops, and also from the We Are Union shop, where all proceeds go to the Change the Rules campaign.


  1. I agree re unions. Have been a member for 46 years and am still now a retired member. Women especially should be members especially if they want workplaces to contribute to retirement.


    • 46 years, wow, your certificate will be gold-plated! That’s a great contribution, Pam:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An excellent review, Lisa, one of the best! I was proud to carry a banner for the old Tech Teachers Union way back in the 1980s. Marching is a bit too challenging for me nowadays but I will buy copies of Sally McManus’ book for my grandsons. I’m pinning my hopes for a fairer Australia on the young.


    • Yes, indeed it is the young who have to get on with it now. All those young people getting ripped off in the Gig economy need to realise that only collective efforts in a union can fix the exploitative mess that’s emerged. But consumers need to realise their role as well: if you buy a cheap Domino pizza, it’s cheap because someone isn’t getting paid properly.


  3. Here in America private sector unions have been all but destroyed. Though there are several factors at play, big business has enormous political power and had managed to write anti union laws and regulations. In some places conservatives are now attacking public sector unions. The result has been declining wages for the middle class along with longer work weeks and deteriorating working conditions. It is really a sad story.

    Hopefully Australians will be able to hold on to their unions.

    I agree that sometimes, peaceful civil disobedience is necessary for social progress and to promote fairness.


    • Yes, and the key word is ‘peaceful’!


  4. Great post and review. I was excited when I got my autographed copy, Lisa – still have to write a review/memoir to include some info about John’s years – Tas Bull his friend and mentor too:) I think the pocket size great and hope it’s read and discussed in workplaces and schools. I loved her honesty about the TV session too – after seeing the ABC studios, it gave me more sympathy for those interviewing and those being interviewed remotely – glad I’ll never be in the hot seat!


    • I should have known you’d have this!
      That certainly is illuminating about being interviewed… I really despise that interviewing style, and admire anyone who puts up with it in a good cause.
      But she’s also spot on about her topic: it’s a scandal that things have become so unfair in our time, and reform is definitely overdue.


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