Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

A Decade of Striking Figures

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

A Decade of Striking Figures

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Industrial disputes, or strikes (1), have been an endless source of fascination for students of industrial relations. Strikes are believed to epitomise or provide dramatic and spectacular illustrations of the struggles or conflicts that exist between the various individuals, groups and organisations involved or interested in industrial relations and the world of work. At one level, strikes are perceived as consulting a technique used by workers and unions to protect, defend and advance their employment rights and interests; and provide an indication of the power or militancy of unions. At another level, strikes can be interpreted as a reflection of the feelings of fmstration and impotence experienced by workers who are forced to experience ahenating and meaningless work to eke out an existence for themselves and their families. Alternatively, strikes are seen as impairing the productive performance and efficiency of firms or industries, resulting in losses to production and output. Industrial disputes may also be seen as providing an apparent measure of the degree of social cohesion that exists within workplaces, and/or across a nation's industrial relations system. In Australia industrial disputes have an added dimension. They provide a means of testing the effectiveness of industrial tribunals in preventing or settling industrial disputes compared to nations which make use of collective bargaining as a method of industrial relations regulation. Have industrial tribunals, to draw on a famous quote from Higgins, ushered in 'a new province for law and order'? (1915, p. 13).

The period 1980 to 1990 has witnessed a decline in the level of industrial disputation in Australia. Section Two of this article will provide an account of statistical information associated with industrial disputation during these years. It will compare losses from strikes to other sources of lost production, and compare Australia's strike record with that of other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. In addition it will examine Australia's propensity for a high proportion of short strikes, and the high percentage of disputes which involve a resumption of work without negotiations. Section Three will present reasons for the fall in the strike activity during this period. A summary and conclusion is provided in Section Four.

2. Industrial Disputation in Australia: 1980 to 1990

Information concerning industrial disputation in Australia for the period 1980 to 1990 is presented in Table 1. The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines an industrial dispute as:

   a withdrawal from work by a group of employees, or a refusal by an
   employer or a number of employers to permit some or all of their
   employees to work, each withdrawal or refusal being made in order
   to enforce a demand, or to express a grievance (Cat. No. 6321.0).

Table 1 shows that there has been a reduction in the number of disputes during this period. In the years 1980 to 1982 the number of disputes exceeded 2000--with more than 2900 in 1981--falling to between 1200 to 1500 by the end of the this period. This decline in the number of industrial disputes can be contrasted with changes in the workload of the (then) Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. In the twelve months to August 1980,4728 matters were lodged with the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission . Of these, 1854 were notifications of a dispute as per Section 25 of the (now defunct) Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 (It is now Section 99 under the Industrial Relations Act 1988). Parties do not have to be engaged in a strike or lock-out to be involved in a dispute for the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to have become active under Section 25 of the old Act. In the twelve months to August 1988 the number of matters lodged had increased to 8188, with the number of Section 25 notifications more

than doubling to 4178 (Annual Reports, 1980, 1988). …

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