Workplace Change and Employment Relations Reform in Australia: Prospects for a New Social Partnership?

Russell D. Lansbury, University of Sydney


Reform of employment relations has been central to political and economic debate in Australia during the past two decades. The process of enterprise bargaining was begun by the Hawke Labor government in the late 1980s, with the cooperation of the union movement, as an attempt to decentralise the employment relations system. More radical reforms have been introduced by the Howard Coalition government since the mid 1990s designed to individualise the employment relationship and reduce union involvement. Yet the responses by employers to these recent changes have varied. While some have attempted to introduce non-union agreements, often against strong opposition from the existing workforce (as in the waterfront and mining industries), others have used more cooperative approaches to change. This paper analyses four cases which illustrate the diversity of approaches to workplace change. While a return to a centralised system of employment relations is unlikely, there may be prospects for greater dialogue between the parties leading to a new form of social partnership under a future Labor government. However, this would require considerable negotiation in order to reconcile the different needs and views of the parties.

Russell Lansbury is Professor of Work and Organisational Studies and Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Sydney. He is joint editor of the Journal of Industrial Relations and joint editor (with Jim Kitay) of Changing Employment Relations in Australia (Oxford, 1997).

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