4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1996  
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Contents >> Work >> Industrial Relations: Industrial disputes

Industrial Relations: Industrial disputes

In 1994, there were 560 industrial disputes, the lowest number of disputes since 1940.

Industrial relations involves four major parties: employers; employees; trade unions; and the government. When parties cannot agree about wages, managerial policy, physical working conditions or hours of work, an industrial dispute may occur. Such disputes have costs for employers (e.g loss of productivity), employees (e.g loss of wages and possible loss of job) and the government (e.g effects on economy).

Industrial disputes

An industrial dispute is a withdrawal from work by a group of employees, or a refusal by an employer or a number of employers to permit some or all of their employees to work.

This review only includes industrial disputes which involved stoppages of work of ten working days or more. Ten working days is equivalent to the amount of ordinary time worked by ten people in one day, regardless of the length of time of the stoppage. For example, 3,000 workers on strike for 2 hours would be counted as 750 working days lost (assuming they work an 8 hour day).

Disputes which occurred during the year encompass those disputes where any part of the dispute occurred in that year. If a dispute continues from one year to the next it is counted in both years.

Working days lost are losses due to industrial disputes only. They are a measure of the volume of disputation since they encompass not just the number of disputes but also their duration.

Disputes caused by managerial policy are about the exercise of managerial control by employers, e.g terms and conditions of employment, award restructuring and work practices. They include most disputes over enterprise bargaining.

Disputes relating to wages are about general wage principles, e.g increase or decrease in wages, variation of method of payment or combined claims relating to wages, hours or conditions of work in which the claim about wages is deemed to be the most important.

Number of disputes
In the period 1969-83, the number of industrial disputes recorded annually fluctuated considerably but was consistently higher than the number of disputes in the period 1983-94. Since 1984, there has been a steady downward trend in the number of industrial disputes. While this is part of a world-wide trend, the decline in Australia has been much greater than in other parts of the world1. In 1994, there were 560 industrial disputes the lowest number since 1940.


Source: Industrial Disputes (cat. nos 6322.0 and 6322.0.40.001).

Working days lost
Displaying a similar pattern to the numbers of industrial disputes, the numbers of working days lost per 1,000 employees were consistently higher and fluctuated more in the period 1967-83 than in the period 1983-94. Disputation intensified in the first few months of 1974 but there was no significant increase in the number of disputes2. A combination of increased employee involvement in disputes and increased duration of disputes produced the high figure of 1,273 working days lost per 1,000 employees. This can be attributed to the high figures in Victoria (1,757) and New South Wales (1,462). In 1975, the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, with the support of the government, introduced a system of wage indexation which '...appeared to arrest the wage-price spiral for at least a time.'3 By 1977 the number of working days lost per 1,000 employees had fallen to a low of 336. This subsequently rose to 787 in 1979 and remained about this level until 1982 when it dropped to 358.

The period 1974-83 was one of rapid and sustained increases in unemployment. The unemployment rate rose from 2% in 1973-74 to 9% in 1982-83. In 1983, the number of working days lost per 1,000 employees was 249. By 1994, this had declined to 76, the lowest number since the series was first compiled in 1967. The economic recovery in the second half of 1983 was the beginning of a long period of strong employment growth. Unemployment fell from 9% in 1982-83 to 6% in 1989-90. It then started to rise again and in 1992-93 reached a high of 11%. (see Work - National summary tables).


Source: Industrial Disputes (cat. nos 6322.0 and 6322.0.40.001).

Causes of disputes
Data on causes of industrial disputes only refer to the main cause of a dispute. Therefore the relative importance of all causes as perceived by both employers and employees may not be reflected. Between 1967 and 1994 managerial policy and wages together were the causes of most industrial disputes ending in a year and accounted for at least half of the working days lost. In 1967, managerial policy was the major cause of industrial disputes (572), followed by wages (316) and physical working conditions (200). In 1994, these causes were also the top three with managerial policy accounting for 317 disputes, wages accounting for 66 and physical working conditions for 61.

In both 1967 and 1994 disputes over managerial policy caused more working days lost than disputes over any other single cause. In 1967, 252,300 working days were lost due to disputes over managerial policy compared to 158,900 in 1994.

Between 1967 and 1982 disputes over wages accounted for more working days lost than disputes over any other cause. In 1974, the proportion of working days lost due to disputes over wages peaked at 88%. Since 1983 disputes over managerial policy have generally accounted for more working days lost than disputes over any other cause. In 1990, the proportion of working days lost due to disputes over managerial policy peaked at 75%.


Source: Industrial Disputes (cat. nos 6322.0 and 6322.0.40.001).

Prices and incomes policy 1983-96

The Statement of Accord between the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was endorsed in February 19834. Shortly after the ALP won the federal election the Accord became government policy. In September 1983 the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission agreed to establish a centralised wage fixing system based on productivity and price movements as outlined in the Statement of Accord. The ACTU agreed to exercise restraint in wage claims in exchange for social programs.

During the first three years of the Accord wages were indexed, but at the end of 1985-86 the government and the ACTU agreed to partially index wages. Subsequently, indexation was abandoned and wage adjustments were significantly below the inflation rate. In 1987 the Industrial Relations Commission recommended a two tier system. The first tier was an automatic flat increase for everyone. The second tier was related to identifiable improvement in productivity. In the following years the two tier system remained with increasing flexibility occurring. For example in 1991 the first wage increase was replaced by a tax cut5,6. The Accord was abandoned in March 1996 following the change of government.

In 1994, there were 153 industrial disputes in the coal mining industry, more than a quarter of all industrial disputes and more than in any other industry. Coal mining also had a much higher rate of working days lost per 1,000 employees than any other industry (5,964).

The recorded method of settlement of a dispute is the one which is directly responsible for ending the dispute and not necessarily the method(s) responsible for settling all matters in the dispute. Consequently, the role of various industrial tribunals operating under state and federal legislation may be understated as they may not lead directly to the settlement of the dispute. Of the disputes in the coal mining industry, 69% were settled by resumption without negotiation and 65% lasted one day or less. Equivalent figures for all industrial disputes were 57% settled by resumption without negotiation and 53% lasting for one day or less.


Industrial disputes
Working days lost(c)

Coal mining
Other mining
Metal product, machinery and equipment manufacturing
Other manufacturing
Transport and storage; communication
Education; health and community services
Other industries(a)
All industries

(a) Comprises agriculture, forestry and fishing; electricity, gas and water supply; wholesale trade; retail trade; accommodation, cafes and restaurants; finance and insurance; property and business services; government administration and defence; cultural and recreational services; personal and other services.
(b) Disputes do not add to total because a dispute may affect more than one industry.
(c) Rate per 1,000 employees.

Source: Industrial Disputes (cat. nos 6321.0 and 6322.0.40.001).

The number of industrial disputes and working days lost per 1,000 employees varies considerably between the states. In 1994, New South Wales had 230 disputes, Queensland 139 and Victoria 109. Queensland lost 115 working days per 1,000 employees, Northern Territory 103, New South Wales 99 and Victoria 52. Queensland's higher rate can be attributed to mining, particularly coal mining which lost 13,425 working days per 1,000 employees. In 1994, the Northern Territory had only 15 disputes which accounted for 103 working days lost per 1,000 employees. Disputes in mining other than coal mining, and metal product, machinery and equipment manufacturing were the main contributors.

In 1994 the method of settlement of disputes also varied by state. Resumption without negotiation was the most common method of settlement of industrial disputes for all states. It was highest in Western Australia accounting for the settlement of 70% of disputes. State legislation and joint federal and federal-state legislation were the least used methods of settling disputes, accounting for 9% and 13% respectively. State legislation was more commonly used in New South Wales accounting for the settlement of 11% of disputes. Federal and joint federal-state legislation were more commonly used in South Australia.


Source: Industrial Disputes (cat. nos 6322.0 and 6322.0.40.001).

1 Chapman, B. and Gruen, F. (1990) An analysis of the Australian consensual incomes policy: the prices and income Accord ANU Centre for Economic Policy Research Discussion Paper No. 221.

2 Bentley, P. (1975) Industrial relations Committee for Economic Development of Australia Study M. series No. 40.

3 Hill, J.D. et. al. (1982) Industrial relations: an Australian introduction Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.

4 Stilwell, F. (1986) The Accord and beyond Pluto Press, Sydney.

5 Parkin, M. and Bade, R. (1990) Macroeconomics and the Australian economy, Second edition Allen & Unwin.

6 Phillips, P. (1995) Evaluating the Accord(s): a comparative Canadian perspective Journal of Industrial Relations Vol. 37 No. 4.

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