Labour History

Award Regulation and the New South Wales Retail Sector, 1971–88: Crisis and Experimentation amidst Changing Models of Development

Labour History (2015), 109, (1), 75–92.


The 1970s and 1980s were crucial transitional decades regarding the award regulation of the New South Wales (NSW) retail sector. It was only in 1971–72, at the zenith of the post-World War II model of development known as antipodean Fordism, that the five-day work week was achieved for retail workers. The subsequent crisis of Australian capitalism undermined the basis of the “standard” employment relationship and encouraged the growth of precarious employment forms, such as casual and part-time work, which found particularly strong expression in the retail sector. In the midst of an institutionally entrenched retail union with strong links to the ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP) state government, broader corporatist experimentation, and division in the ranks of retail capital, a new juridic form, the Retail Trade Industrial Tribunal, was created to handle these tensions, an example of “institutional searching” for ways out of deepening crisis. Beset by jurisdictional squabbles with the NSW Industrial Commission and actively undermined by employers, the Tribunal proved an abortive experiment, creating a vacuum into which unadulterated neo-liberal prescriptions would step.

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33.Thom Workman, If You’re in My Way, I’m Walking(:Fernwood Publishing, 2009), 12–14. Google Scholar

34.Saturday morning work was often specially recompensed. For example, in theShop Assistants (Newcastle) and (Metropolitan) Awards Case, in theIndustrial Arbitration Reports, NSW(hereafterAR) 54(1955):871, 885–886, Justice De Baun provided for an allowance of 10 shillings for workers thus engaged. It is telling, however, that this was awarded following a refusal by the Full Bench to grant a five-day working week, in essence representing a premium in lieu of the full benefits of the antipodean Fordist wage-labour nexus;The Australian Industrial Law Review 27, no. 17(1985):275. Google Scholar

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39.A threat made very apparent by the preparedness of the Transport Workers’ Union to enforce boycotts to ensure compulsory unionism;Nikola Balnave andDennis Mortimer, “Union Security in Retail: Legislative Intervention or Collective Agreement,” International Journal of Employment Studies 13, no. 1(2005):81–105. Google Scholar

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45.For example, until the early-1970s manufacturers largely dominated distribution chains, deciding what to produce and often controlling prices through resale price maintenance practices. The role of the retail sector in this arrangement was as an intermediary, marketing products made available by manufacturers. See, for example,Stuart Rosewarne, “The Political Economy of Retailing into the Eighties: Part 2,” Journal of Australian Political Economy, no. 16(1984):75–92;David Burch andGeoff Lawrence, “Supermarket Own Brands, Supply Chains and the Transformation of the Agri-Food System,” International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 13, no. 1(2005):1–18. Google Scholar

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47.Additionally, full-time employees often proved reluctant to work outside their normal spread of hours. In NSW, the introduction of Friday night and Saturday afternoon trading in 1984 was made conditional upon a savings clause being inserted in theShop Assistants (General Shops) Interim (State) Award, which provided that full-time staff employed prior to 23 July, 1984, could not be compelled to work outside ordinary hours:The Australian Industrial Law Review 27, no. 12(1985):198–99. Google Scholar

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50.The fact that strikes remained limited in retail can be gleaned from the comparatively paltry strike statistics for the sector as a whole from 1975–80 (the period for which we have specific data on the incidence of strikes in the retail sector specifically). Generally speaking, retail strikes were small in number and usually drew in relatively few employees. See Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Statistics, Australia, no. 6101.0, for 1975–80. Subsequent iterations ofLabour Statisticsdo not specifically measure strike statistics for the retail sector. This in itself would appear to tell a story as to how negligible strike action in the sector really was. Google Scholar

51. In re Shop Employees (State) Award (No. 2), AR(July–September1977, Pt 3): 555, 569. It is worth noting that the initial trend towards retail precarity was primarily one of casualisation. Unlike the well-established categories of “full-time” and “casual,” “part-time” was a much rarer feature of Australian awards into the 1980s. Indeed, theShop Employees (State) Awardof 1982 provided that part-time workers could only be women or men over 60;NSW Industrial Commission, “Shop Employees (State) Award,” NSW Industrial Gazette 226(1982):1716, 1722. Google Scholar

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56.Justice Macken noted that “the RTA was compelled to adopt a rather ambivalent attitude towards trading hours because of the deep divisions amongst its members with respect to suggested changes”;Justice Macken, “Report to the Minister for Industrial Relations,” 38. Google Scholar

57. Ibid., 38–39. The RTA noted that only 10 per cent of their membership supported de-regulated trading hours, the same 10 per cent who supported Sunday trading, namely, large retailers;“Shopping Hours Inquiry,” The Retail Traders’ News Bulletin, March1983, 3. Google Scholar

58.Michael Lyons, “An Appealing Outcome? Industrial Arbitration and Extended Retail Trading Hours in New South Wales in the 1980s,” International Journal of Employment Studies 13, no. 1(2005):113. Google Scholar

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60.A move supported by NSW Premier Neville Wran:“Wran Supports Extended Hours,” The Canberra Times, 29 August1983, 3. Google Scholar

61.Justice Macken, “Report to the Minister for Industrial Relations,” 102–10. Google Scholar

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65.NSW Industrial Commission, Statement Matter, nos 1529 and 1564 (2 August1984), unreported. These agreements were understood as thequid pro quofor union acceptance of de-regulated trading hours;J. Taylor, “Extended Shopping Hours Have Been Delayed Again,” Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August1984, 3. Google Scholar

66.The RTA noted rather sheepishly in early 1984 that“the retail industry is the last major employing industry maintaining a 40 hour week”; “38 Hour Week,” The Retail Traders’ News Bulletin, March–April1984, 5. Google Scholar

67.Which, since 1972, was the prevailing standard in NSW. See NSW Industrial Commission,“In reShift Workers Case 1972,” AR 72, pt 8(1972):633. Google Scholar

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73.Pat Hills, NSW LA, Hansard, 14 August1984, 66. The main issue was that the agreements with the six major retailers provided for time-and-a-half rates for all Saturday work, a scheme unpalatable to other general stores; Pat Hills, NSW LA, Hansard, 20 November1985, 10101. Google Scholar

75.Designated “small,” “special” and “confectionary” shops remained governed by theShop Employees (State) Award. Google Scholar

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80.As their behaviour should rightly be regarded:Lyons, “An Appealing Outcome,” 119–20. Google Scholar

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83.In lieu, they were given a small allowance for shifts longer than four hours, representing a return to the situation prior to Justice Macken’s 1977 decision originally extending penalty rates to casuals. See“In reShift Workers Case 1972.” Google Scholar

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99.Influence oiled by substantial financial contributions. For example, in 1983 the SDA made a $20,000 contribution to ALP head office, the largest such sum that year:Peter Collins, NSW LA, Hansard, 20 November1985, 10089. Google Scholar

100.See, for example,John Davis Garland, NSW LC, Hansard, 1 October1985, 7318; andP. F. Watkins, NSW LC, Hansard, 26 November1985, 10518; the latter decries the Commission’s “outrageous decision.” Google Scholar

101.Pat Hills, NSW LA, Hansard, 19 November1985, 9843. Google Scholar

102.P. F. Watkins,NSW LC, Hansard, 26 November1985, 10515. Google Scholar

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108.Re Shop Employees’ (Major General Shops) (State) Award, inIndustrial Reports 17(1988):155. Google Scholar

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110.A direct appeal from the Tribunal to the Commission was ruled out by a privative clause inserted by theIndustrial Arbitration (Further Amendment) Act 1986(NSW). The peculiarity of this provision is further evidence of the influence of the SDA on the Labor Government. Google Scholar

111.The absent assessor was ironically the employer’s nominee, the aforementioned Mr Lawrence;Lyons, “An Appealing Outcome,” 117. Google Scholar

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119.Deputy-President Wells noted that the evidence before him “indicated that in some instances there had been a tendency to take the easy way out of staffing problems by simply engaging casuals”;Ibid., 204. This sentiment reveals a judicial myopia regarding the processes unfolding. The increasing precarity of retail employment relationships was not at base a matter of individual employers choosing to “take the easy way out.” Rather, it was the essence of the fundamental change in the wage-labour nexus underway, a transformation spear-headed in the retail sector. Google Scholar

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121. Ibid. Google Scholar

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130.Such as OHS;Ibid. Google Scholar

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Author details

Heino, Brett