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There are now a range of methods for resolving disputes concerning the terms and conditions of employment agreements. These include grievance procedures, mediation, negotiation, conciliation and arbitration. These methods will be discussed briefly, before describing how workplace disputes tended to be resolved under the twentieth century system of conciliation and arbitration.

Grievance procedures, mediation and negotiation

The basis of many workplace disputes and industrial conflict tends to be about disagreement over wages and entitlements. Employers feel that wages and conditions to be provided to workers are too costly, or inappropriate for the skills and the tasks at hand. Employees and their unions, on the other hand, feel that proposed wages and entitlements are not fair or generous enough. In this situation, employers and employees both have grievances that need to be resolved. This is why grievance procedures have been developed, to avoid costly and bitter industrial disputes such as strikes.

Grievances may be solved at the workplace; negotiation can be effective when third parties such as unions and the employment advocate are involved during collective or individual bargaining. In recent times, grievances have been resolved internally, with an increase in human resource departments, staff trained in recruitment, training and paying staff, as well as experts in conflict resolution. When grievances can't be resolved in the workplace, mediation - where a neutral third party helps employers and employees reach agreement - can resolve issues. See image 1.

Dispute resolution under the system of conciliation and arbitration

Dispute resolution used to refer to the need to end conflict between unions (representing employee members) and employers (often represented by employer associations) concerning the terms and conditions of employment contracts and agreements. Dispute resolution in employment and industrial relations has declined in recent times and may reduce further if employers receive more power in individual wage negotiations with their employees.

For most of the twentieth century, disputes over wages and conditions were resolved or prevented by a system of conciliation and arbitration. This system involved an independent arbitrator, formerly the Conciliation and Arbitration Court, which became the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (the AIRC), that used the law to try to find a satisfactory compromise or outcome for the parties to a dispute that usually involved unions in disagreement with employers. Ironically, this system of dispute resolution largely failed to prevent workplace disputes and strikes by workers and unions. Although there were few lengthy industrial disputes last century, the system of conciliation and arbitration was held responsible for an increase in short and disruptive strikes. Strikes affect the productivity time of employers and business.

Workplace disputes usually needed to be resolved or arbitrated because of a basic conflict: employers wished to set the terms and conditions of employment for each individual, while employees and their unions wished to bargain collectively with employers to maintain improved wages and entitlements. When disputes eventuated, unions would regularly take strike action, until the State or federal 'umpire' stepped in to resolve the dispute. Many strikes were actually illegal, yet were rarely stopped by civil penalties and statutory sanctions. Although workers' wages and conditions improved under conciliation and arbitration, employers felt that this system of dispute resolution was too costly to business and biased towards the collective bargaining preference of unions.

After legislative reforms were passed in 1993 and 1996, the unsatisfactory dispute resolution system of conciliation and arbitration changed. Industrial action like strikes or legal action became a 'weapon' for both employers and employees, within a system termed 'voluntary collective bargaining'. In effect, this meant that industrial action could only be used in specific situations to allow award wages and conditions to be maintained and individual and collective bargaining to occur. Employers, employees or their unions could lawfully put forward their case in collective bargaining (or enterprise agreements in certain workplaces) or in relation to new individual agreements (Australian Workplace Agreements). These reforms to the process of negotiating and setting wages and conditions greatly reduced industrial disputes and hence reduced the need for dispute resolution. See image 2.

New workplace reforms were passed in 2005. These have led to a historic situation in Australian industrial relations: unions, employees and employee associations are greatly restricted in their ability to strike in dispute of proposed employment conditions. This may lead to a greater reduction in industrial action and disputes through the imposition of large fines or legal orders against unions. Employers may also gain greater bargaining power over workers' wages and conditions.

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1. Are strikes likely to be more or less frequent since the dispute resolution changes?

Less frequent

Strikes will never occur again

More frequent

It depends on a referendum


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