A recent report has estimated the number of strikes has declined 97% since the 1970s. Clearly, something must change.



The push and ultimate delay of the Sydney rail industrial action has been a matter of intense discussion these past few weeks. And this morning the saga continues with a report from the Australian Institute: Centre for Future Work charting the historical decline in our nation’s industrial disputes, raising questions of human rights, productivity and access to justice.

Following the Fair Work Commission’s order to suspend a state-wide 24-hour hour strike last week, NSW Rail workers and other community groups have expressed concerns for the fundamental right to protect industrial action in Australia. The ruling was deplored by the Australian Council of Trades (ACTU) who claimed that the “basic right to strike in Australia is very nearly dead.”

The ACTU Secretary Sally McManus went on to share her thoughts with Fairfax Media: “Working people’s wages in Australia are so stagnant because the rules are stacked in the favour of the employers… Rail workers followed every single rule and law, and still, the Minister of the day can get an order to cancel bans on working excessive overtime…  We need to change the rules.”

This latest review written by economist and director Jim Stanford adopts a similar stance. The main findings of the report are as follows:

  • The relative frequency of industrial action (measured by days lost in disputes per 1,000 workers employed) declined 97% from the 1970s to the present decade;
  • There were only 106 disputes across Australia during the first nine months of 2017. The low number of stoppages last year may set a record low for the post-war era;
  • There is a close statistical relationship between the near-disappearance of strike activity and the deceleration of wage growth, which has also fallen to the lowest rates in the post-war era;
  • Strike activity in Australia is very low compared to other industrial countries.

The recent Sydney Trains experience has been deemed a high-profile example of such trends.

“In sum, union members confront a daunting set of legal, administrative and economic barriers in order to undertake collective industrial action. Without the ability to back up their demands with at least a meaningful threat of collective action, unions’ ability to win better wages and conditions for employment is significantly undermined.”

However today I pose the question, what would’ve been the alternative if the Train Strike was permitted? Deliberately coinciding with back-to-school dates and the daily commute of workers, such action was deemed by the FWC to “threaten to endanger the welfare of part of the population.” Sydney is the largest and most economically prominent city in Australia. To drain $50 million to $90 million worth of Sydney’s productivity would’ve been detrimental to our general wellbeing, not to mention interrupt essential service sectors such as NSW Police and NSW ambulance.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian follows this line of argument. “There is no reason to have a strike when your members are yet to consider properly the offer that was on the table.” Ms Berejiklian stated that the NSW Union has “crossed a line” by pursuing such action.

We need to continue to work towards balancing the right to strike against the future certainty of our public services sector, but also safeguarding our economy.

So yes, the rules do need to change.


Share via