Australia's big 'cake' in minerals: unions want their cut now

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Australians should be bracing themselves for an escalating wage-and-price spiral that is threatening the government's anti-inflationary policies, according to leading commentators on the nation's labor relations.

In the 12 months ending June 30, prices rose 8.8 percent. For the current financial year, however, Federal Treasurer John Howard estimates inflation at 10 .75 percent. And there is concern that as workers try to catch up with prices and management tries to pass on increased labor costs, prices will rise even more rapidly.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has served notice that it plans a major push for higher wages over the next six months - a scenario that observers believe will make the country's stormy labor relations climate even more turbulent, boosting the high number of strikes.

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At a recent annual congress in Sydney, the council decided to campaign for increases which, unionists say, will vary from $10 to $30 a week - depending on the particular industry.

ACTU president Cliff Dolan says the extent of pay-related campaigns will depend on how employers react. The aim of any action, however, will be to win substantial wage increases for all workers ''in the shortest possible time.''

Telex services have recently been crippled, airline services curtailed, postal services disrupted, and telephone services knocked out because of recent labor disputes.

According to Alan Jones, executive director of the New South Wales Employers' Federation, ''Part of the problem is that Australia's resources development boom has been 'talked up' to a fantastic degree. . . . The unions believe there's all this wealth from new mineral and other projects - but, in ''But the unions won't accept it - they believe there's this fantastic cake to be carved up now. Some of them think it's a capitalist plot to oppress the working class.''

In Mr. Jones's view, industrial unrest is more difficult to check in Australia than in North America, because in the United States and Canada ''it's all to do with pay and conditions, but the social system is accepted. Here some militant but important unions want to replace our system with a socialist state. We have strikes that may seem economically based but, in fact, are politically motivated by left-wing leaders.''

Union leaders counter that higher costs of health care and a new federal sales tax are among factors prompting a vital need for pay raises.

Workers and employers agree that the coming months will bring a worsening of industrial relations.

Some Australian strikes occur for reasons unrelated either to pay conditions or politics. Shipping in Sydney Harbor was recently brought to a near-standstill by a strike after two workers who fought on a tugboat were dismissed.

Nevertheless, most strikes are pay-related. ''There are no signs that unions will moderate their claims,'' David Abba, executive of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, says. ''The stronger will continue to try to force employers to pay more - and then the smaller unions will try to catch up.''

The fact that there is no inflation index policy for wages promotes the free-for-all atmosphere of labor's demands. The government abandoned in July an arrangement under which workers received automatic increases every three months because unions were demanding - and getting - big increases on top of those authorized by the index system.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser warned employers not to give in to massive demands for pay raises. He suggested they make increasing use of arbitration when disputes arise.

But decisions by Australia's Arbitration Courts are sometimes ignored by strong unions, too, which press on successfully with claims, forcing employers to settle so as to resume production. The Arbitration Courts can impose penalties of prison and fines when they are ignored, but in practice they have not done so in recent years. Now employers' groups are demanding that the courts show more muscle.

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