By Janet Burstall
At 2pm on Saturday 29 October the General Manager of Qantas grounded the airline and announced a lockout starting Monday 31 October. Qantas workers from three unions had been taking limited industrial action over job security. Then Fair Work Australia, a national workplace relations tribunal, issued an emergency ruling, ordering the unions to return to the negotiating table and come to an agreement within 21 days or face binding arbitration.
How can Qantas workers save their jobs and conditions without sending Qantas broke and losing their jobs anyhow?
The short answer is nationalise Qantas. The longer answer is international coordination by airline workers.
But Qantas is not about to go broke. It made $552 million profit in 2010-2011. It is one of the only airlines in the world that is profitable.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald Qantas has similar annual costs for labour at $3.7 billion, and for fuel at $3.6 billion. But Qantas did not renew its fleet with more fuel efficient 777s when other airlines did, and so is now trying to make the savings at the expense of labour. It is running four years behind on its fleet replacement program. It also plans to move its business “offshore” into Asia.
Airlines have been going out of business all over the world.
The airlines that are doing best are the state owned airlines from the Middle East such as Emirates and China. Governments back these national carriers because they bring tourists and other sources of income.
Nationalisation is the only way that jobs can be secured. Recent polling research found 43% of respondents supported renationalisation of the airline, a large number blamed Qantas management rather than workers, and very large majorities opposed offshoring and thought the remuneration for the company’s boss Allan Joyce was too high ($5 million a year).
This is without any campaign for the policy. Whilst the Greens would be unlikely to get an anti-Qantas management motion through this parliament, a proposal of support for Qantas workers and against Qantas management might help to galvanize more support in the labour movement and public opinion, and to open up some cracks in Labor.
But Qantas may be taking British Airways as a model. When BA sat out the Gate Gourmet dispute, they looked as if they didn't care about trashing the brand, etc. They did care, but sat out the dispute successfully; lots of flights stopped, many flights were without usual catering for many months. US airlines Continental is another example. It went bankrupt twice, sacked all its workers, rehired them on half the wages, suffered some losses, but has survived.
By stopping all flights for two days Qantas may do less long term damage to its reputation and finances, than a drawn out campaign might have done, with unions taking very limited losses to their members. Because Qantas is planning to launch new lower cost brands soon, perhaps the damage to Qantas reputation doesn't weigh so heavily in their calculations.
Whether Qantas actually negotiate now or wait for compulsory arbitration in 21 days remains to be seen. With ex-Rio Tinto, union busting executive Leigh Clifford as chairman of the Qantas board, taking on union power may be just as high a priority as being free use cheaper labour in other countries. Big business may also be trying to pick a fight with the federal government over workplace relations in general and the Fair Work Act, which is not restrictive enough on unions for their liking.
This may explain why Qantas bosses called an all out indefinite stoppage.
Despite Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard's disapproval of Qantas's action it is Labor's Fair Work laws which enabled the lockout. Now that Fair Work has been used once to end a dispute it will embolden management in other companies and industries to take lock out action, and intimidate unions.
If they are to recover bargaining power, the unions are going to have to take on the restrictions of Fair Work Australia and call for the abolition. Any forthcoming conservative government will make their situation worse.
In the first place, the unions should call for the ALP to put up legislation that the Greens will support and negotiate with the independents whilst the anger at Qantas management is hot.
If Qantas was government-owned they could borrow to buy new planes at lower interest rates. There would be no need to pay huge executive salaries, no dividends, no need to prop up a share price. An open inspection of Qantas books would reveal the true picture.
The downward pressure on conditions in aviation can best be resisted with global liaison between airline unions. For example Jetstar Asia's conditions are much worse that those at Qantas, a campaing to level up their conditions would help.