Putting a stop to strike action

Putting a stop to strike action

Michael Blockey

According to Jim Stanford, Australia Institute Centre for Future Work, wage growth in Australia since the 1990s has been low compared to other decades (Figure 1). Aware that threatening to strike, or actually striking, was a potent weapon in wage negotiations, Stamford plotted the number of days lost to industrial disputes from the 1950s to the 2010s against the annual  increase in wages. He found that when workers flexed their collective industrial muscle in the 1970s and 1980s, they got annual wage increases of up to 10%. In the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, there were hardly any strikes.  And wage growth was very low, about 2% (Figure 1).

 Moral of the story? If the workers don't use their right to strike, they will be ignored in wage negotiations.

So why don't workers threaten to withdraw their labour these days? Because successive Coalition governments, at the bidding of the wealthy elite, have passed into law restrictions on strikes.

Sally McManus, secretary of the ACTU points out that due to these restrictions, employees can only strike:

i) with other employees of the same employer for an enterprise agreement to cover that enterprise,

ii) during a bargaining period after the expiry of an old agreement,

iii) for rights that can be put into an agreement, not other legal or policy measures, even when they directly affect workers,

iv) for their own rights, not in sympathy with other workers through secondary boycotts,

v) in isolation, not through pattern bargaining to achieve common agreements across multiple employers or supply chains.

Additional roadblocks to strike action, include ballots to take strikes, and powers accorded to the Fair Work Commission to terminate or suspend industrial action. And there are heavy fines- of between $400 -600,000 for big unions in the event of an unlawful strike. No wonder there are few strikes!

Sally McManus is calling for much needed changes to industrial relations. Step 1 is asking workers to join unions. It’s a chicken and egg situation. If workers don’t join unions, unions have little industrial muscle to flex and wage growth remains low. If workers do join unions, the unions will have considerable industrial muscle to negotiate higher  wages.

The moral of the story is clear: workers can best help themselves get wage justice by joining a union!

Ngara InstituteComment