The Fair Work Commission’s ruling to pre-emptively block industrial action (including restrictions on overtime and a one-day work stoppage) by Sydney-area train workers has brought renewed attention to the legal and administrative barriers which limit collective action by Australian workers.
The Sydney trains experience is a high-profile example of a much larger trend. Across the national economy, work stoppages have become extremely rare – and the extraordinary discretionary ability of industrial authorities to restrict or prevent industrial action is an important reason why.
The Centre for Future Work has compiled a database of historical work stoppage data, going back to 1950, including the incidence of work stoppages and the numbers of work days lost as a result (both in absolute terms and relative to the size of the employed workforce).
The main findings of this historical review include:
- The relative frequency of industrial action (measured by days lost in disputes per 1000 workers employed) declined 97 percent 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 postwar era (final year-end statistics will be released in March).
- 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 postwar era. Over the postwar period, every decline in the frequency of work stoppages of about 60 lost days per 1000 was associated with a one percentage point deceleration in wage increases.
Strike activity in Australia is very low compared to other industrial countries.