It’s March 2017, and Sally McManus is off to a flying start. Just four hours after becoming the first female secretary of the ACTU, she tells the 7:30 program’s Leigh Sales: “Our current laws are wrong … when it [the law] is unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem breaking it”. 

All hell breaks loose. Employers call for her head and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announces the government can’t work with her. Workers, on the other hand, give her standing ovations.

Two years later, McManus’ new book, On Fairness, reiterates her 7.30 message. “Our movement’s most important achievements”, she writes, “were won by breaking unjust laws, because it has nearly always been illegal to take strike action”. 

Inspiring words, and you’ll find many more in On Fairness. But have the ACTU secretary’s actions matched up? 

The Change the Rules campaign, aimed at challenging the unfair industrial relations system, is one of the big ticket items on the ACTU’s agenda. McManus has travelled the country speaking at rallies and meeting with union members in workplaces to talk about the campaign. Campaign rallies have attracted tens of thousands of workers, indicating there is a mood for change. 

But rather than build on this, under McManus’ watch the campaign has become little more than photo shoots and set piece meetings and marches, morphing more recently into a “vote Labor” publicity stunt. 

As for breaking the laws, in February McManus told the Melbourne Press Club that there’ll be no return to the militancy of the past, reassuring the bosses: “It’s not the 1970s … It won’t go back to those days, it just won’t”. Yet that very militancy won so much for workers – something she acknowledges in her book.

On Fairness does tell a better story too. Union rights have been hard fought for, and the book points to the price many workers have paid in the history of the union movement. Governments have mobilised against working people, using the legal system, police, mercenaries and the military to obstruct, destroy, jail and even murder workers who form unions or take industrial action. 

Individual workers in Australia can cop massive fines and face jail for stopping work, even for just 10 minutes. And bosses can bring huge damages claims against unions to bankrupt them, or use myriad other anti-union laws to undermine union power and working conditions. 

The book also highlights the inspirational struggles of the Australian working class movement. McManus writes of her own experience as a high school student in the late 1980s going into town and standing with thousands to support striking teachers. She recalls “the feeling of solidarity and strength … Union power is this simple act of solidarity – of people realising what we have in common and deciding both to stick together and to act”.

She stands up for the CFMMEU against the ongoing barrage of attacks on its militancy; she cites the examples of Australian unions taking a stand against war, against apartheid and against developers set on destroying green space and working class housing. 

And she takes on the racism of the right, arguing that it is not Muslims who create the unfair system, but those at the top protecting their own privileges and profits. It is those at the top, she notes, who imposed neoliberalism, the “structured economic unfairness” of the current stage of capitalism.

Describing workers’ reaction to corporate tax avoidance and record profits, McManus says that it’s “pitchfork” time. 

 But if we have such an amazing history, how is it that inequality persists, union membership has plummeted and strike levels are at historic lows? And why is it that nearly half the workforce is casualised and wages are stagnant? 

After building up to the idea of “pitchfork” time, the book lets us down badly. McManus believes that capitalism can be made fair through the courts or parliament, and that we don’t need our most effective weapon – the strike – except as a threat to enable us to negotiate our way to fairness. 

This message does not prepare us for the challenges we face in rebuilding the union movement from its present dire state into the fighting force of the past that McManus rightly praises. 

There are two other problems with On Fairness. 

The first is that McManus is dishonest about the past role of the Labor Party. Though she mentions that Coalition governments’ actions have often taken up where Labor left off, she fails to mention Labor’s anti-union and anti-worker policies when in government. 

Perhaps the most damning omission is the Prices and Incomes Accord negotiated by the ACTU and the Hawke Labor government. The Accord caused unionisation levels and industrial action to drop dramatically and resulted in one of the largest transfers of wealth from workers to bosses in Australian history. Not to mention the smashing of two important unions, the pilots and the builders’ labourers, and a reduction in women’s wages.

Her one concession that Labor may have worked against union and workers’ interests under the Accord is a passing slap on the wrist to former treasurer Paul Keating for introducing neoliberalism.

We cannot rely on a Labor government to deliver – its history of betrayal and outright anti-working class policies should make that clear. It is only by rebuilding our collective strength as trade unionists, and by building a political alternative to the ALP, that we have the power to win what is rightfully ours.

Strikes, such as that at Chemist Warehouse recently, show that determined picketing can win and is more effective than waiting for or relying on deals handed down by courts. 

Sure, we need to change the rules. The current ones are draconian. But many were written or enforced by previous Labor governments.

It’s only by showing our determination to smash those rules – to be, as McManus writes, the “equalising, opposite force against the greed of the wealthy and privileged”, that meaningful change will come. 

We do need a return to the militancy of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when workers understood a basic truth: if you don’t fight, you lose.