Democracy, Social Justice and the Role of Trade Unions

Democracy, Social Justice and the Role of Trade Unions

We the Working People

Edited by Caroline Kelly & Joo-Cheong Tham

Anthem Studies in Australian Politics, Economics and Society

Trade unions worldwide face a powerful paradox at this critical juncture: collective organisations for workers are urgently needed and yet there are serious pressures undercutting the legitimate role of trade unions. The aim of this book is to examine how trade unions can effectively navigate this deeply contradictory challenge. It is underpinned by the conviction that trade unions are – and should be – vital institutions for democracy and social justice. Written by leading scholars in industrial relations and labour law as well as those in political philosophy and political science, the collection tackles a range of pressing topics for trade unions including: the climate crisis; the COVID-19 pandemic; economic democracy; democracy within trade unions; precarious work; and election campaigns.

Hardback, 234 Pages


September 2021

£80.00, $125.00

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About This Book

Trade unions are central to Australian social, economic and political life. They are the largest voluntary organisations in the country, are a significant presence in political life, and, as workplace organisations, are often the only effective vehicle to give voice to working people. Their role is nevertheless under serious challenge, with low and declining union density and shrinking coverage of collective bargaining. Controversies surrounding several union officials have called into the question the legitimacy of trade unions. And for some governments, trade unions are not social partners but rather targets of restrictive legislation.

Despite these tensions, there has yet to be a broad and systematic scholarly engagement with the challenge to the centrality of trade unions in Australian social, economic and political life. Existing literature tends either to examine trade unionism from an historical perspective or to focus upon the regulation of the role of unions in the workplace.

This book aims to fill this gap by bringing together leading scholars in industrial relations, law, political science and political philosophy to critically assess the role of Australian trade unions. In doing so, it is organised according to two themes. First, the book examines the democratic role of trade unions as representatives of working people and addresses issues such as economic democracy and the rule of law in the workplace, political funding and trade agreements. Second, the book examines the social justice role of trade unions in providing a countervailing force to employer power including in relation to precarious work, the 'gig' economy, labour migration and the pressing global challenge of climate change. The concluding contribution weaves these two themes of democracy and social justice together in proposing a democratic socialist vision of trade unions and labour law.


“In an era when democratic institutions are under great strain, this important volume brings together leading scholars to examine the central constitutional role of trade unions as guarantors of democracy and social justice. The chapters consider the multiple challenges presented by climate change, migration, the erosion of secure employment, the global pandemic, and international trade. The need for strong and democratic trade unions has never been so urgent. This book is a vital scholarly contribution to these debates.” — Alan Bogg, Professor of Labour Law, Bristol University, UK

After decades of being decimated by hostile and repressive politics, this important book considers whether trade unions can emerge once more to cement their place as a formidable democratic institution; to give workers a proper voice at work and on the political stage. I commend it to you.” — Josh Bornstein, Principal Lawyer, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Australia

This edited collection makes a significant and timely contribution to labour law and industrial relations, especially given the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It brings a strong scholarly focus to the often fraught role of trade unions as social partners, particularly in face of the fragmentation of employment relationships. A particular innovation is the attention paid to the democratising role of unions, both within nation states and transnationally.”— Sara Charlesworth, Professor of Gender, Work & Regulation, RMIT University, Australia

 “This collection of essays by eminent experts provides a timely analysis of the vital role that trade unions can, and must, play in meeting the existential challenges facing contemporary industrial democracies. It is essential reading for anyone concerned about the impact of disruptive technologies, climate change, and neoliberal ideology on labour markets.” — Joellen Riley Munton, Professor of Law, The University of Technology Sydney, Australia

“This book provides a clear-sighted vision for the remedial role of trade unions and social democratic governance in an age of atomising and precarious work relationships and climate crisis. It is a 'must read' for labour policy-makers and trade union leaders alike.” — Dr Eugene Schofield-Georgeson, Senior Lecturer in Law, The University of Technology Sydney, Australia

“Democracy, Social Justice and The Role of Trade Unions is a timely co-edited volume examining the democratic role of trade unions in the context of increasing precariousness in labour markets and capital mobility coupled with decline of worker representation in an era of pandemic capitalism. Advancing novel theoretical and empirical approaches and claims, contributors explore the role of trade unions in struggles for social justice in the form of decommodification of labour and economic democracy.” — Leah Vosko, Professor of Political Science and Canada Research Chair in The Political Economy of Gender & Work, York University, Canada

Author Information

Joo-Cheong Tham is a professor at Melbourne Law School and director of the Electoral Regulation Research Network. His research areas are labour law and public law, with a focus on law and democracy and precarious work. 

Caroline Kelly is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Law School. Her research areas are labour law and public law, with a focus on the influence of administrative law doctrines in Australian labour law. 


Anthem Studies in Australian Politics, Economics and Society

Table of Contents

Foreword by Sally McManus; Acknowledgements; Chapter 1. Democracy and Social Justice as Organising Principles, Joo- Cheong Tham and Caroline Kelly; Chapter 2. Economic Democracy, Workers and Unions, David Peetz; Chapter 3. Nobody Owns the Future, Julian A. Sempill; Chapter 4. Regulatory Approaches to the Internal Affairs of Trade Unions in Australia: From Democratic Control to Corporate Accountability, Caroline Kelly; Chapter 5. Trade Unions and the Regulation of Election Funding: Between Libertarianism and Egalitarianism, Joo- Cheong Tham; Chapter 6. Trade Unions and Precarious Work: In Search of Effective Strategies, Iain Campbell; Chapter 7. ‘Is There an App for That?’ Worker Representation, Unions and the Gig Economy, Anthony Forsyth; Chapter 8. Temporary Migrant Workers and Trade Unions in Australia: A Complex Relationship, Joanna Howe; Chapter 9. Unions, Fossil Fuel Exports and a Just Transition, Jeremy Moss; Chapter 10. Trade Agreements, Labour Rights and Democracy, Patricia Ranald; Chapter 11. Trade Unions, Labour Law and Democratic Socialism: The COVID- 19 Crisis in the United Kingdom, K. D. Ewing; Notes on Contributors; Index.


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