Forget what you read in the newspapers. The number of days lost to industrial disputes reduced significantly in the past quarter, part of an overall long-term trend downwards.

Several media outlets today reported a spike in days lost due to industrial disputes in 2011 (a total of 257,000 days) equalling a “seven-year high”. In fact, the “high” was already achieved at the end of a particularly active December quarter, announced in March — where it already hit 241,000. This means only another 16,000 lost days were recorded in the March quarter, compared to 54,000 in the past quarter.

The real story out of the ABS quarterly figures is that the number of days lost due to industrial dispute in the March quarter is down more than 60% since September last year and down about 40% since the December quarter. The latest figure actually shows the number of disputes is probably now starting to even out and the past quarter may well be an anomaly.

Professor told Mark Wooden, professorial research fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne, told Crikey: “The overall numbers are now so low that I don’t think quarterly/annual variations mean much.

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“Essentially, the traditional strike is (mostly) a thing of the past, strike figures have been going down for a long time. They fell during the accord of the 1980s, so researchers claimed that centralised wage determination was the cause. But they kept falling in the 1990s, so it was claimed that decentralised determination (enterprise bargaining) was even better. So you cannot mount a pro-employer FWA reform case based on these figures. But then nor could you mount an anti-WorkChoices case based on the earlier figures either.”

The latest figures from the ABS indicate if the March 2012 pattern continues the 2012 average would be about 134,000 — still less than the John Howard years of 2005 (228,000), 2004 (379,000), 2003 (439,000), 2002 (259,000), 2001 (394,000) and 2000 (469,100). These figures alone shows how selected it is to call the latest figures a “seven-year high”.

While the number of days lost per industrial disputes increased in 2011 (257,000) when compared with 2010 (126,000), as well as 2009 (132,000) and 2008 (196,000), the number of industrial disputes actually decreased. The 2011 figure was also up from record lows under the unpopular WorkChoices legislation in 2007 with 49,000 days lost, but still comparable to 2006 (132,000 days lost) and 2005 (228,000 days lost).

Overall, the industrial dispute levels continue at an overall trend of historic lows. While the Fair Work Act started operation on July 1, 2009, the average number of working days lost per dispute decreased from 1110 to 558 between 2008 and 2010.

Mining company bosses continue to raise concerns about the level of industrial action in the Australian mining sector. Submissions to the Fair Work Australia review emphasise the need to deregulate the making of industrial agreements by limiting the number of matters that can be included in an enterprise agreements and increasing the number of “unlawful terms”. But two crucial sets of figures take the heat out of claims Australia’s industrial system isn’t flexible.

First, according to the ABS: “Over the period 1987 to 2007 … Coal mining, which generally had the highest number of working days lost per thousand employees of all industries, recorded a fall from 7800 working days lost per thousand employees in 1987 to 4100 days in 1997 and 139 days in 2007.” According to the latest quarterly figures, the industry recorded the highest number of working days lost at 287 per thousand employees. Hence, the current levels of days lost due to industrial disputes in coal mining are still much lower than levels under Howard’s Workplace Relations Act.

The tally of days lost largely derive from the same dispute between BHP and its workers at the Bowen Basin. The figures show the coal mining industry made up more than 40% of the days lost in the quarter, but only 6700 employees were responsible for all the days lost — indicating the vast bulk is coming from the 4000 employees involved in the protracted 18-month battle at all seven coal mines in the region.

That dispute and other high-profile cases involving BHP, Rio Tinto and Woodside Petroleum, combined with the co-ordinated campaign the industry, have clouded the debate. The levels of dispute in the industry may point to a failure in management and negotiations as well as some particularly adversarial unions, rather than a failure of the Fair Work Act and Fair Work Australia. More to the point, the Fair Work Act is, in substance, not all that much different from WorkChoices on rules governing agreements and the right to strike.

The latest figures also contradict responses to the data released in December 2011 for the September quarter by many pro-employer groups. As Australian Metals and Mines Association chief executive Steve Knott said: “The record industrial dispute figures released by the ABS earlier this month verify what Australian employers have been experiencing for many months; that the industrial harmony of Australian workplaces is gradually being eroded.”

Looking through past ABS figures highlights the difference even further — there were 460,000 days lost in 1999, 526,000 in 1998 and 928,500 in 1996. This compares to pre-accord and reform days; there were some 1.3 million days lost in 1987 and a massive 5.42 million in 1973.

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As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.


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