The Right to Strike For Social Justice?

Joanna Psaros

4 April 2021 (art and entertainment article)

Refugee Action Coalition rally, 2020

The right to walk off the job in protest of better pay or working conditions is a well-recognised, if controversial, Australian institution.  

But is there such a thing as a right to strike for reasons unrelated to work, such as to protest for the rights of the planet or social justice? In 2018, global climate strikes were scheduled with millions of students and workers striking in protest of climate change inactivity and the continued reliance on fossil fuels. So what would be the legal position of an employer whose employee takes a day off work to participate in a social protest? Can (and should) the employer take disciplinary action, or is there such a thing as the right to strike for the planet or social welfare?

Contrary to what I’d vaguely believed, in Australia there is actually no general ‘right’ to industrial action such as striking. While striking is lawful, or ‘protected’ in limited, technical circumstances under the Fair Work Act, an employee or group of employees who stopped work in ‘protest’ without following the legislated steps would likely find themselves dismissed. Whatever your thoughts on industrial action in the Australian IR system, it does seem interesting that this is not framed as a human rights concern given the potential overlap with the right to freedom of speech and obviously, labour rights.

At odds with Australia’s domestic position, there is considered to be a general right to strike under international law. However, it is still unlikely that this would extend to a right to strike for reasons outside labour rights.  

Aboriginal deaths in custody protest, 2021

So what options are we left with when protests and community action that means something to us falls within work hours? There’s always taking a sick day- and feeling paranoid every time a camera approaches. Or why not just give it a miss? That feeling of guilt and powerlessness will be replaced with anxiety about the next approaching deadline before you know it!

Scott Morrison and climate change protest, 2019

The point could be made that social justice strikes are unreasonable because unlike in the case of industrial issues, the connection between what’s being protested and the position of the employer may be unrelated. But I’d argue that work plays such a pivotal role in our life that walking out is the ultimate disruption, which enables movements to make a real impact. In this context it makes sense that we drop everything and demonstrate what matters to us the most and what, in an ideal world, we hope would matter to our employer too.  If industrial action is protected by the law, so should be social justice action. 

Striking represents making a stand about what’s owed to you. There are a lot of things we’re owed. Climate action. Racial equality. Economic justice.

And we owe it to ourselves to put work second. 

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