Australia's winter of discontent

Australians like to think that "down under" they are insulated from some of the world's ills. They live in a climate of relative economic prosperity and the government has prided itself on holding inflation at 10 percent.

But one bugbear, poor labor relations, has in recent years clouded the picture. Australians have come to accept regular strikes as part of the national scene.

And this year the picture has become gloomier. Australians are increasingly concerned that leapfrogging wages and prices will do serious economic damage. The current wave of labor unrest is causing mounting concern in government and business circles.

Telecommunications workers have crashed through government-set wages guidelines, winning pay increases of up to $36.50 a week. Government and business officials worry that other unions will follow suit in the next few months, perhaps spinning the wage-price spiral out of control.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has proposed to the Australian Council of Trade Unions that it attend a proposed national industrial relations inquiry. The ACTU, so far, has refused to become involved in such a probe.

A recent Telecom-workers (phone and telex employees) strike spawned 16 days of communications chaos in Australia. Long-distance phone traffic was at times cut to 5 percent of normal between some cities. Telex communications ceased altogether. International phone links were also curtailed. Automatic systems -- those without worker maintenance -- quickly broke down.

Businesses reported massive losses. Stockmarkets operated "blind" without communications and contemplated suspension of trading activity just before the strike ended.

On the Sydney Stock Exchange, a spokesman noted the strike "had a serious effect on business." Millions of dollars in foreign investment was lost and brokers worried that industrial turmoil might scare off investors in the long term.

Other strikes are disrupting Australia as well. Sydney's public transportation workers struck and won a $25 wage hike, but the matter has gone back to arbitration. In New South Wales, maritime unions refuse to handle coal bound for Japan or other places on Liberian or Panamanian ships, tying up port traffic. In Melbourne, maritime workers have just begun loading grain on container ships after a strike; their complaints have gone to arbitration.

A postal strike, recently settled, tied up communications and business in many parts of the nation.

Neville Wran, premier of New South Wales and a former industrial lawyer, warns that strikes are leading Australia to the brink of "industrial, social and economic disaster."

One party in the middle of almost all the disputes -- the National Arbitration commission -- has come under heavy fire both from workers and employers. Says Ron Fry, national director of the Metal Trades Industry Association: "Strike action is taken as a first resort or, alternatively, decisions of the Arbitration Commission are ignored."

A spokesman for the business community, David Abba, executive director of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, says, he is concerned the current labor trend could bring on "industrial anarchy." He suggests that a conference of all parties to industrial bargaining be held to devise a new system for settling Australia's growing number of pay disputes.

Strikes in Australia traditionally bunch together: a few months of labor turmoil tends to be followed by a few months of industrial peace. But the current pattern of disruption is viewed with great concern particularly by export industries who regularly hear complaints -- mostly from Japan -- about Australian unreliability as a supplier as a result of work stoppages.

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