When five Queensland clergymen contrived to get themselves arrested on a Brisbane picket line in opposition to the Queensland Premier's anti-strike legislation, their claim was that they were protesting against a morally repugnant law which ordinary citizens were therefore entitled to disobey.
With more zeal than discretion, one of them reportedly took a cross on to the picket line, presumably to symbolise that his sufferings were, in some way, united with those of Christ on Calvary.
One might discern a certain disproportion between the discomfort he experienced from arrest, even by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen's police force, and that experienced by Christ from the Roman soldiery on Golgotha. Still, a symbol is a symbol.
Archbishop Runcie and the Christian clergymen in question defended an important principle in stating that the right to withhold one's labour - or to strike - is a natural right which Christianity has long proclaimed and defended. That is both true, and worth re-stating.
However, it was surprising that they made no reference to the equally well-established Christian principle that there is no such thing as an absolute right, that rights are always balanced by concomitant responsibilities, and that the exercise of such a right is governed by the condition that its exercise does not occasion greater harm than that which it is designed to prevent. The group of Catholic priests who contributed to The Australian's letters page (April 19) emphasised the first part of Catholic social teaching in the matter of strikes, but refrained from mentioning the point made by Pope John Paul II:
"While admitting that it is a legitimate means, we must at the same time emphasise that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused: it must not be abused especially for political purposes. Furthermore, it must never be forgotten that when essential community services are in question, they must in every case be ensured, if necessary, by means of appropriate legislation."
The purpose of industrial law is to establish a careful balance between individual rights and community responsibilities.
The difficulty of reconciling rights and responsibilities has been illustrated on a number of recent occasions.
The original Queensland power stoppages (from which the present conflict originated) cost the people of Queensland an estimated $1000 million. More important, they were undertaken in the heat of a Queensland summer. They were called with total disregard of climatic conditions because that was the moment of greatest advantage. The observed result was many jobs lost, businesses closed down, house fires, and widespread suffering to the aged, the sick, and mothers of young children.
Were these original stoppages morally justified? If not, why was there no protest?
The Australian community as a whole has recently suffered heavy losses as a result of the Commonwealth Public Service strike, led by Administrative and Clerical Officers Association (ACOA). The issue was a claim for an 8% wage increase. The Federal Labor Government, and the Arbitration Commission, even the ACTU, would not support it because it was outside the Accord. The method used by the strikers was to cut off the flow of millions of dollars to the Federal Government, from taxes, import duties, and similar charges to force it to come to heel. Was that strike justified in its underlying claim? Were the methods used morally permissible? If not, why was there no protest?
During the recent visit of the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Nakasone, to Australia, vital coal shipments to Japan were held up and over 20 vessels kept at anchor in NSW harbours as a result of a rail strike over a manning issue. The claim was not only repudiated by all relevant arbitral authorities but was condemned by the Labor State Premier, Mr Wran. Mines were closed. Jobs were lost. No damages for loss were available either to owners or miners. The Japanese looked elsewhere for sources of supply. Was a strike on the manning issue justified in the light of the obvious consequences? If not, why was there no protest?
A little more than a week ago, the trustees of the Melbourne Cricket Club were compelled to capitulate to Mr Norm Gallagher and the Builders Labourers Federation and to pay builders' labourers an extra $85 per week - yes, $85 per week - plus certain other "perks" over and above the award.
The firm which originally carried the electricity pylons to the Melbourne Cricket Grounds has been driven out of business by BLF black bans, and has had to be bought out by the State Government. Both Federal and State Labor Governments, however hypocritically, condemned the continuous course of blackmail but did nothing about it. Was this astronomical breach of the Accord justified? If not, why was there no protest?
If Christian clergymen claim to take a stand on moral rather than political grounds, their dedication to morality should be seen to be general rather than particular.
However, recriminations are as useless as debating points. What matters is that men of goodwill should combine to devise a legal system which will balance industrial rights and community responsibilities. This involves much more than simply asserting that there is a right to strike.
One such system is Australia's traditional arbitration system. It can function only if the original sanctions for breach of award - destroyed at the time of the O'Shea affair in 1969 - are accepted by both parties. Would the unions accept this? What counsel would the Christian clergymen provide to ensure that the community's interests are preserved?
If enforceable arbitration is not acceptable to the unions, an alternative system would be one in which unions, employers and governments entered into legally enforceable contracts covering wages and working conditions with damages for breach by either side. Would the unions accept this? What counsel would the Christian clergymen provide to ensure that the community's interests are preserved?
A totally separate aspect of any fair and just legal system governing industrial relations must surely be that those who are not parties to a dispute, but whose interests are seriously damaged by it - whether victims of secondary boycotts or independent contractors - should be entitled to compensation. Basic principles of justice must guard their interests as well as those of the parties directly involved.
Unfortunately, little assistance can be expected from the ACTU in these matters. Not only has it consistently sought the repeal of Section 45 (d) of the Trade Practices Act but it has also sought legislation to remove the right to damages in common law for loss sustained through industrial action. In other words, it has sought to remove union action from the purview of law altogether. The ACTU's position as a responsible participant in these matters has been further devalued by its policy towards the BLF.
When a large part of the trade union movement (including communist-led unions) wished to see the BLF disaffiliated as well as deregistered because of its violence against workers as well as employers, it was the ACTU which prevented either happening.
The Christian churches would render a valuable contribution to discussion of a critical issue if they turned their minds to the balance of justice between rights and responsibilities. One-sided emphasis on rights without regard to responsibilities will simply do damage to the reputation of the churches.