Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Myths and Realities: A Review of the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Myths and Realities: A Review of the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Much of the debate in National Wage Cases about approaches to industrial relations and about the merits of various wage fixing options is based on what might be called deductive reasoning or, more pejoratively, 'expressions of faith'. In the Council's view, with some exceptions, little debate in National Wage Cases is founded on empirical research. This is particularly so regarding the relative merits of enterprise bargaining and, indeed, how enterprises actually function. The lack of empirical research reduces the efficacy of the debate.

One of the few exceptions to that general observation is, in fact, the Business Council itself. The Commission will be aware of the research work the Council commissioned through its Industrial Relations Study Commission. The work, based on case study, survey and other research, is one of the few, perhaps the only, large scale research works on the question of how enterprises operate in an industrial relations sense and the difficulties they encounter as a result of the traditional structural and institutional features of Australian industrial relations (Business Council of Australia, 1990, p. 24).

Happily, this recent observation about the state of the empirical basis for policy making in Australian industrial relations is no longer true, at least to some extent. The publication of the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey (Callus et ol, 1991) has helped fill the empirical vacuum.

It is, of course, hard to argue against the proposition that the collection of data, where previously the data had not been collected, is not in the interests of better policy making. In that sense, AWIRS is certainly a 'good thing'. For that reason, it is unnecessary for this article to extol the virtues of AWIRS. The principle purpose, therefore, will be to comment critically on the underlying values of the Survey and to examine the inevitable difficulties with the first of what, hopefully, will be a regular survey. Particular attention is given to the extent to which the Survey exposes or confirms the conventional views about Australian workplaces.

2. The Scope of Industrial Relations

The authors of AWIRS use the term 'industrial relations... to cover the full range of issues that arise out of the formal and informal employment relationship, the management-employee relationship and, where relevant, the management-union relationship' (p. 8). They do so on a number of grounds. In particular, they reject an 'employee relations' approach, defining it as embracing 'the developments in management strategies which focus on the direct interaction between management and employees' (p. 7), because it is said to ignore the more formal rule-making and structures which impact on the workplace.

The most recent articulation of an employee relations approach is to be found in the first Report of the Business Council's Industrial Relations Study Commission (Industrial Relations Study Commission, 1989, p. 5 - 9). The Study Commission's conceptualisation of employee relations is illustrated in Figure 1.

As the authors of AWIRS suggest, it may well be that these two approaches only represent different points on a spectrum. If that were so, it might have little impact on the authors' fmdings and the conclusions for policy which might be drawn from them. The problem is that the 'industrial relations' mindset with which the authors examine the data available to them leads to some analysis which does not bear close scrutiny. This is most apparent in the discussion of management structures in Chapter 4. There, the 'management of employees' is viewed as a function separable from other aspects of management with a 'trend', arising from the growth of the 'bureaucratic organisational form', to the appointment of specialist managers to 'carry out many of the industrial relations functions that were once the responsibility of line managers'. …

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