The number of working days lost to strikes leapt by just over 90% in 2011, with business blaming the adversarial environment created by the Fair Work Act as the main reason for the rise.
The number of days lost to industrial disputes (including strikes and lockouts) climbed from 126,600 in 2010 to 241,500 in 2011, while the total number of employees involved in disputes increased from 54,800 to a staggering 133,800.
The Government has been quick to point out that the numbers have been skewed somewhat by industrial action taken by state government public servants, including in NSW where 30,000 workers protested against the Liberal State Government in September.
Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten also pointed to a sharp fall in days lost in the December quarter, when 54,300 days were lost compared with 101,300 in the September quarter.
“We’re pleased with that number,” Shorten told The Australian.
“This is at a time when there’s been increased disputation between public servants and Liberal governments at the state level and also some of the turmoil that happened at Qantas.”
New South Wales saw 19,300 days of industrial action in the December quarter, but the biggest number of days lost was in Queensland (home to a Labor state government) where 22,100 days were lost.
Business groups including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia, say the current review of the Fair Work industrial relations regime needs to look at an increase in “adversarial” bargaining, which the business groups say cover a much wider area than previously.
But IR laywers such as Peter Vitale are vary of changes in this area.
“We’ve seen a lot of calls by businesses and unions for entry into arbitration where negotiations come to a stalemate. Frankly I am not sure that the answer.
“It might get the number of dispute days down in the short term, but it runs contrary to the point of enterprise bargaining.”
Vitale says the review should be focused on ways to make the process of agreement making easier, but says he doesn’t hold out much hope.
“They ought to be looking at is provisions for non-union agreements and to not make it so easy for unions to insert themselves in the process, whether they are wanted or not.
“You’ve also got to have a more effective way of making individual agreements, whether that is that is through making the current individual flexibility agreements more effective or through other means.
“But I have no faith the review process will result in any movement in that directions.”
The new figures come as pharmaceuticals group Sigma has locked out about 130 workers from its plant in Melbourne.
The dispute centres on a 15% penalty loading for workers who do night shift. Sigma wants to drop the loading for new staff, arguing that its customers – including pharmacies – increasingly require it to be open for longer as consumer trends change.
The workers, represented by the National Union of Workers, have already held two three-day strikes.