Melbourne Law School - Theses

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    Can Victorian union members be personally liable for the unlawful conduct of their unions?
    Angelopoulos, Anastasios ( 1995)
    Workers join unions for a number of different reasons. It may be that they hold a deep conviction in the class struggle of workers against capital, or else they believe for practical reasons that they will have a more effective voice in the workplace and their interests will be better protected by joining a trade union. Alternatively, it may be that the place of employment operates as a closed shop and thereby only allows union members to work. In those circumstances, the workers have no real choice of whether or not to join the union. Whatever the reason for joining a union, in order to become a member and to maintain membership, each worker is required to pay their membership dues which may for example be payable weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually. If a worker does not pay the amount due, he or she may be fined by the union, have his or her membership cancelled, or even be pursued in the civil courts. In addition to membership dues, which may be used for a number of different purposes (such as administration of the union, support for local, national or international causes, and even affiliation to political parties), a union member may also be required to pay fines imposed or levies which have been struck by the union. There may be a range of different reasons for the imposition of fines or levies. For example, the union may have been successfully sued by a third party or penalised for its involvement in unlawful conduct which may be industrial in nature. Rather than bear the full financial burden of the judgment debt, the union may seek to spread the cost either in whole or in part amongst its members. If the activity was industrial in nature and involved a particular class of members who were seeking to promote their interests as opposed to the interests of the union as a whole, the union may seek to penalise those members with a fine for any costs it has incurred. A union may not be the only person who seeks to impose financial obligations on members beyond their membership dues. Third parties who have been injured or suffered a loss as a result of union activity may be of the opinion that their claim may be more successful if pursued against the individual members involved in the unlawful conduct rather than the union. They may also believe that they have a better chance of being compensated for their losses if the personal assets of the members are greater than those of the particular union. A similar result may be reached by virtue of legislation. Legislative provisions may penalise the individual union members involved in the unlawful conduct rather than the union, even if such persons are promoting the interests of the union and are acting under the instructions of the governing body of the union. If it is possible for third parties to pursue union members directly whether at common law or under legislation for the unlawful conduct of their union, then members are potentially subject to very wide financial obligations. Union members may not have anticipated such obligations when they joined the union. Thus the question for consideration in this thesis is as follows: Can Victorian union members be personally liable for the unlawful conduct of their unions? Associated with this question are further issues. The scope of liability may depend upon the legal status of the union, the common law, the industrial legislation under which the unions operate or other legislation directed at the industrial activities of unions. A further related matter is whether the principles have equal application if the union itself as opposed to an aggrieved third party (injured as a result of the general or industrial unlawful conduct of the union) seeks contribution or reimbursement from its members for its legal liabilities. In attempting to identify the circumstances in which members may be held personally liable for the unlawful conduct of their union it is important to analyse the following preliminary issues: 1. The meaning of the term "union"; 2. The legal status of unions that operate in Victoria; and 3. The scope of legal responsibility of such unions for the conduct of their agents.