Canberra — The Australian government has launched a no-holds-barred fight with Australian trade unions against acceptance of a 35-hour workweek. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has written state premiers, urging them to join in the fight because of "severe adverse effects" he says a 35-hour week would have on the Australian economy, labor costs, and the competitiveness of industry and employment.
Using a mixture of promises and threats, the government is also attempting to persuade major corporations to hold the line against reductions in the 40-hour week.
The prime minister says the federal government "will be taking whatever action is available to us" against the union drive, including moves with the taxation system.
He added, "We will be urging major Australian companies to support firms faced with industrial difficulties as a result of the shorter hours campaign."
Mr. Fraser has already called on the carpet the managing director of Australia's largest chemical company, Imperial Chemical Industries, following reports that it was negotiating with unions over the 35-hour week.
What touched off his concern was a decision of the independent Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to approve a 35-hour week deal for workers at a petrochemical plant in Victoria.
Only 850 workers, in six establishments, were involved in the settlement. But it was regarded on all sides as an important test case for the introduction of the shorter working week.
The company and the trade unions involved had 45 meetings over three months to write up a balance sheet on the costs and benefits of the proposals. They eventually persuaded the Arbitration Commission that the costs would be minimal and that these would be offset by increased productivity and greatly improved industrial relations.
The government attacked the decision, saying the companies had been blackmailed by union harassment into agreement to the 35-hour week. Industrial Relations Minister Andrew Peacock described the settlement as "disgraceful."
One of the problems for the government is that the shorter working week has been spreading for some time. Although the official workweek in Australia has been 40 hours for the past 35 years, more than a third of Australia's nonmanagerial employees work less than that time.
Public servants work 36 1/4 hours, and in the last 10 years there has been an increasing move by trade unions to get a general 35-hour week.
The shorter week has been won by workers in the power generating industry, in mining, and in postal and telecommunications services. The unions are now pushing for its introduction in the chemical and metal-working industries.
The federal government has very limited powers to prevent the shorter week from being introduced. It has no direct constitutional powers over working conditions. According to some lawyers it is probably exceeding its constitutional powers in the carrot-and-stick approach it is now adopting toward industry over the 35-hour week.
What it is saying is that it will administer government contracts with businesses affected by union strikes over the 35-hour campaign with "flexibility , and sympathetically."
It also intends to defer company taxation payments when companies experience difficulties as a result of union action and take other "appropriate measures."
One of Australia's leading academic lawyers in the industrial relations area, C. P. Mills, has described the government's proposals as "a compound of bribery and corruption." He says that it is being done without any form of parliamentary authority, and that it is heading toward a "dictatorship form of rule."
Perhaps more significantly, he predicts that the government's action will increase the number and severity of strikes and says that the productivity lost through the strikes should be balanced against what might be saved by slowing the spread of the 35-hour week.
Meanwhile, the Metal Trades Industry Association, an employers' group, has launched an action through the Arbitration Commission to try to have the current 40-hour-a-week system written into the award governing all of the 600,000 workers in the metal industry for the next three years.
The Arbitration Commission this week decided to proceed with a full hearing on this application, despite union opposition.
The unions had proposed instead that they would stop all their present strike action over the 35-hour week (which takes the form of workers simply taking one day a fortnight off from work) if the employers would sit down and negotiate with them on the phasing in of a 35-hour week.
The national director of the Metal Trades Industry Association, Ron Fry, has welcomed the government's intervention in the dispute, particularly its promise of help for thos e employers resisting the unions.