Coming soon: workplace survivor

Warwick McDonald

From the amount of front page publicity generated since the October 2004 election, you would think that the most pressing problem facing Australia is industrial relations 'reform'. As Professor Julius Sumner Miller used to ask, 'Why is this so?'

The conservative definition of IR 'reform' has never been adequately challenged by the labour movement. The workplace should indeed be continuously subject to analysis and reform. But this federal government has cut back on any vigorous study of the workplace since its election nine years ago.

The 1970s and especially the 1980s saw increased questioning of the old IR structures, with teams of employers, union officials and government representatives looking at IR systems here and internationally. It became common ground that productivity at work would be improved by better selection, training and motivation of staff, and by flatter hierarchical structures being introduced to encourage more decision-making by workers themselves. Greater emphasis was to be given to developing customer-consciousness among employees and empowering them to offer more suggestions and make more critical decisions. Workplace teams were encouraged with varying levels of self-management. The more sophisticated larger businesses with specialist Human Resources and Training and Development staff embraced these ideas and became what could be called 'islands of Best Practice'.

"In 1995 only 27 per cent of managers answered that they felt awards/agreements, unfair dismissal laws and employee/union delegate resistance impeded efficiency changes, whilst a total of 65 per cent listed financial/economic, head office management or lack of autonomy as constraining efficiency changes."

The first and only studies of the Australian workplace in the twentieth century took place in 1990 and 1995.

Known as the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Surveys (AWIRS), the first surveyed about 2000 Australian workplaces with five or more employees and involved about 4500 interviews. The second Survey covered interviews with general managers and employee relations managers at about 2700 workplaces with more than twenty employees. 1500 union delegates and the impressive figure of 19000 employees from these workplaces were also surveyed.

Salient findings from the 1990 Survey included 42 per cent of managers indicating they felt no IR constraints in carrying out their role and that awards, and union delegates amounted to only 14 per cent of their total constraints. Many more managers (56 per cent) said they felt constrained by other management and various other issues.

In 1995 only 27 per cent of managers answered that they felt awards/agreements, unfair dismissal laws and employee/union delegate resistance impeded efficiency changes, whilst a total of 65 per cent listed financial/economic, head office management or lack of autonomy as constraining efficiency changes.

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