Strike-happy workers testing the Aussies' mettle

By , Business and financial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

* More than a million gallons of raw sewage washed up on Sydney's beachfront in March after workers at an area treatment plant went out on strike over a wage squabble.

* Some Australian shipowners lost more than a million dollars in May in a dispute over how many stewards should serve meals on carriers.

* When 30 railwaymen walked off their jobs in Sydney recently seeking more pay, they fouled the routine of 250,000 commuters. Newspapers labeled the strikers "bully boys and accused them of holding the "community to ransom."

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Partly for the reasons like these, Australia has gained a reputation for being strike-happy.

Some foreign investors half-jokingly refer to the country as being in a perpetual state of civil war. The Japanese in particular bristle at the country's labor strife.

While efforts are under way to iron out labor wrinkles, the shor-term outlook is grim. Some observers think the country is headed for it worst period of labor turmoil in a decade. In recent months strikes have disrupted telecommunications, uranium exports, car production, and dock work, among other things.

Yet many of the nation's unionists and businessmen stoutly defend their record, arguing that industrial relations are sometimes stormy but always stable.

While they admit the number of walkouts tends to be high, they point out that the stoppages are short-lived. Last year the country recorded more than 2,400 strikes, but less than three days' work was lost for each worker involved.

"They normally don't break a week," says Peter Nolan, secretary of the powerful Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

To be sure, the nation's complex and legalistic centralized wage-fixing and arbitration system often tends to spotlight labor squabbles. It makes seemingly innocuous disputes a "piece of public property," as one observer puts it.

But over the past few years the frequency with which small clusters of striking workers have been able to tie up entire industries has angered many foreign customers as well as a growing number of Australians.

Government officials ominously warn that the militant mood of organized labor could undercut the "lucky country's" resources boom. Unions blame the "confrontational" attitude of the conservative government of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser for exacerbating tensions.

Finger-pointing aside, there is a laundry list of issues that will test the country's indusrial mettle in the months ahead.

With mineral and resources projects gathering speed, the government wil be trying to rein in any wage-induced pressures on the inflation rate. At the same time, unions will be seeking to share in the spoils of a more buoyant economy.

"It is an aggressive situation in which trade unions are seeking to get benefits because of improving economic capacity and in which industrial disputation is likely to increase rather than diminish," says George Polites, director general of the National Employers Industrial Council and Confederation of Australian Industry.

"But I don't think it will get out of hand," he adds.

Many unions will be continuing to push for a 35-hour workweek -- a move the government thinks would thwart the country's economic competitiveness. A number of laborers want this inaugurated across the board. Some of the more moderate groups, as well as the ACTU, are pushing for it to be introduced first in more cash-flush sectors, such as the aluminum and glass industries.

In April the Arbitration Commission, the national ajudicator on wage disputes , adopted a new wage index system restricting unions' ability to slash working hours through bargaining for increased worker rpoductivity. The body also created some uncertainty regarding wage increases -- it guaranteed hikes of only 80 percent of the consumer price index for the first half of the year. In the second half, the commission will determine whether to award the remaining 20 percent, plus a full 100 percent for the second half of the year.

The ACTU board has rejected the new system, which could lead to a showdown during the commissions's next review in the fall. The commission itself is coming under increasing fire. Originally set up to control industrial strife, the court is seen by some as overstepping its mandate to settle squabbles and becoming an enforcer of the government's anti-inflationary policy of wage restraint.

Another potential source of friction: skilled labor. As big projects come on line, employers will want to import skilled labor, offending local unions who cite the 5.4 percent unemployment rate -- unusually high by Australian standards.

In the longer run, says June Hearn, labor specialist at Melbourne University, new technology could also bedevil relations. She sees a widening gap between the haves and have- not and the unions increasingly skirting wage-fixing tribunals to negotiate directly with employers.

One reason for so many strikes is the large number of unions -- more than 250 , representing some 2.8 million workers, or about 57 percent of the work force (compared with about 22 percent in the US). Australian labor groups are based on crafts rather than industries. The result is one of the most highly unionized workforces in the Western world.

In many cases a handful of workers can stop a whole industries employing similar tradesmen. Unionists also are highly politicized, with about two-thirds being formally tied to the opposition Australan Labor Party.

"You only have to look cross-eyed at some union people and you've got problems," complains one mining official.

Attempts are being made to join unions, although such moves are not expected over the next few years. Some government officials worry about the emergence of superunions, while many turf-minded labor groups themselves resist banding together.

Certainly not all labor problems can be pinned on the unions. "It's a management problem, too," observes one Western diplomat. "They have a real Ru gby attitude here at times."

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