Changes - for whose benefit?

Wednesday, April 24, 1991

Agenda for Change: An International Analysis of Industrial Relations in Transition
Edited by John Niland and Oliver Clarke
Sydney: Allen & Unwin. 1991. Paperback, 208pp.
Reviewed by Melanie Sjoberg

Using a series of case studies of industrial relations systems in advanced capitalist countries, Niland and Clarke attempt to draw out some lessons and examine the historical and cultural developments which they see as limiting fundamental change.

The book establishes a few premises which then set the framework for discussion. The first is that it is necessary to have an industrial relations system and that it has a specific role to fill. They see the IR system as the means to determine wages, conditions and work practices as well as the mechanism to facilitate organisational and technological change. Employers, unions, managers and workers are cited as the key players in an arena which should operate without "undue industrial conflict".

It is within this context that the systems existing in Britain, US, France, Germany and Australia are examined. Overall, the outcome of the studies indicate that there has been little fundamental change in the industrial relations systems. Sweden has witnessed a weakening of the collective bargaining system and Britain has increasing legislative involvement.

The book points to the role of consensus as the "greatest facilitator of change". Australia is heralded as the most significant example of consensus-based income policies. "The Australian Accord has endured and given results. Real wages have fallen ... Employment and profits have increased ... Inflation has decreased ... Days lost in strikes have fallen."

The book certainly provides some useful insights into the machinations of various industrial relations systems but its weakness is a complete failure to question whether there are any alternatives. It is essentially an academic treatment within the political and legislative framework of capitalism rather than a challenging political piece.