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Strike-happy workers testing the Aussies' mettle

By Scott ArmstrongBusiness and financial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 1981


* 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.

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* 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."

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.