A nationwide strike by Australian journalists, now in its third week, is developing into a major industrial struggle over modern technology.
The first nationwide work stoppage by Australian journalists, the strike already has forced the suspension of publication of two national daily newspapers and dramatically diminished news coverage in the other 14 big-city dailies.
One of the suspended papers -- Rupert Murdoch's The Australian -- is the country's only national general newspaper. It is also the only one entirely produced on modern computers and video display terminals (VDT). The other paper not publishing is the Australian Financial Review, the only national business journal.
The VDTs are at the core of the dispute. Although Australian publishers have been slower than their American counterparts to adopt new printing technology, all of them are either poised to introduce elaborate new systems or, like Murdoch's papers, have already begun to use them. Anticipating the introduction of the technology, the Australian Journalists' Association -- the reporter's union -- moved three years ago to win an extra payment of $58 a week for journalists required to use the machines.
On May 12, Australia's unique national court for settling industrial disputes, the Arbitration Commission, awarded the journalists a flat extra payment of just less then $6 a week.
The journalists' association blasted the award as "derisory" -- most Australian journalists earn about $325 a week with the top scale about $475 -- and ordered its members not to use the computer terminals.
On Murdoch's Australian, 28 editors were told by management to use the machines; they refused under union orders and were fired. Another editor was sacked in similar circumstances on the Sydney Morning Herald. Within hours, all 2,200 journalists working fo the metropolitan daily newspapers and the national news agency, Australian Associated Press, went on strike.
The journalists have voted three times to continue the strike. A week ago the plurality in favor of it was less than 200. But at meetings throughout the country Thursday, it rose to nearly 600.
Other unions are watching the dispute closely.Clerks, secretaries, airline ticket agents and even supermarket checkout attendants have been lodging urgent claims for technology raises since the journalists' strike began. Until now, none had been paid extra for using the machines, but both Australia's arbitration court and the newspaper publishers have agreed in principle that such increases can be paid -- even if the amount offered was small.
In the meantime, the journalists and their bosses are fighting the issue out, literally on the streets. While editors and managers continue to publish papers that are short on local and especially political news but strong on syndicated stories from overseas, the journalists are publishing their own paper, The Clarion, which is dominated by familiar bylines.