Trends and Prospects in 34 Countries
Edited By Craig Phelan
Australian Unions: Still in Crisis 547
GERARD GRIFFIN Australian Unions: Still in Crisis 1. Introduction Traditionally, trade unions in Australia played a key, central role in determining all aspects of the employment relationship. Buttressed by the Conciliation and Arbitration system legislated in 1904, union density was high and its influence pervaded most sectors of the economy. Indeed, this key role of arbitration, and thus of unions, was regarded as one of the foundation stones of Australian society, part of what one author has described as the Australian settlement (Kelly 1994), which could be more usefully understood in the international context as a form of labour-capital accommodation within a broader societal framework. Unions dominated the wage-fixing system, par- ticularly thriving in industries such as manufacturing, construction, mining, wool and the maritime industry. Although somewhat weaker in white-collar areas of employment, unions succeeded in using the powers of the arbitral system both to ensure reasonable density rates and to play a core role in industries such as retail, banking and the public service. Overwhelmingly, the decades of the first three-quarters of the 20th century were golden years for the Australian union movement, a status accepted by employers and conservative political parties as well as by society as a whole. During the early 1980s, however, a major change occurred in this traditional, centralised, arbitral system of industrial relations, and thus in the role of unionism. Influenced by factors such as major structural change in the economy, changes in the composition of the workforce and new forms of work organisation,...
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