On Saturday, chaos erupted at airports across the world as Australian airline Qantas declared that it was grounding all flights ‘until further notice,’ stranding tens of thousands of travelers who scrambled to make alternate arrangements with no advance warning. Why, one might ask, would an airline do such a thing? Was there possibly a critical safety concern that required evaluation of the entire fleet? Maybe a credible terrorist threat? A need to reroute aircraft for humanitarian reasons, perhaps to carry loads of goods to Turkey, which was recently rocked by a severe earthquake? Why would an airline make a move that would cost it $20 million AUD per day?
The answer? A labour dispute; the airline abruptly halted operations in a bid to heighten the stakes in negotiations over wages and working conditions. Qantas helpfully provided multiple unionbashing updates over the course of the day to keep passengers apprised of the situation:
This is in response to the damaging industrial action by three unions – the Australian Licenced Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA), the Australian International Pilots Association (AIPA) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU)…We understand that this will have a significant impact on our customers and apologise for the inconvenience that the damaging union action has caused. (Emphasis mine.)
What, exactly, were these audacious unions asking for? They were concerned about outsourcing of flight services to Asia, fair pay, and reasonable working conditions for employees, including those who are employed by subsidiaries of the airline or who perform outsourced work. This dispute has been ongoing for several months, with recent escalations as the airline has refused to budge. Ground crews had staged a one hour work stoppage on Friday, for example, with threats of more action in the future, while the pilot’s union was in active negotiations with the airline at the time of the lockout, and the ALAEA had pledged to withhold industrial action for at least three weeks in an attempt to reach a settlement. Many of the workers threatened with lock out weren’t even involved in the action and the pilot’s union threatened a suit.
One pilot wrote:
I just woke up in Honolulu to find a note under my hotel room door saying that after I do a Maximum Weight Takeoff (185,000kgs) with 70,000kgs of fuel tomorrow and safely fly 250 passengers home over the Pacific Ocean for 10.5hrs tomorrow (at times up to 3 hours flight time from any runway) I will be locked out of work for an indefinite time. The Pilots HAVE NOT had 1 stop work meeting OR strike, THIS IS THE COMPANY MANAGEMENT INDUSTRIAL ACTION, not ours. (source, via Definatalie)
Meanwhile, Alan Joyce, CEO of the airline, just received a 71% payraise. At the same time, he was demanding that unions ‘back down‘ or face the consequences. Those consequences were illustrated in a dramatic way with an action in which the airline appeared to shoot itself in the foot; the lockout was going to cost the airline a substantial amount of money that would increase over coming days, while enraging travelers, and the Australian government became involved in the dispute. Critics also worried that the Australian tourism industry could suffer substantially; not only was Qantas hurting itself and its employees, but it was also dealing direct damage to Australians working in various jobs in connection with the industry, which was already faltering after a rough year.
Joyce’s action was a classic act of unionbusting; by escalating the stakes enough to force Fair Work Australia to get involved, he put pressure to resolve the dispute on the government, rather than the airline. As furious and stranded passengers waited word on alternate flights home or an end to the siutation, their eyes turned to an emergency meeting on the 30th to attempt to resolve the situation. Joyce used his position to argue that the government should order a complete stoppage of the industrial action, not just a suspension to allow time for continued negotiations.
Effectively, he was asking the government to crush the union for him, putting a decisive and definitive halt to worker demands for better conditions, fair pay, and long-term security for the airline. Joyce claimed that the airline has been under attack from the unions, and was under threat of closure without intervention, but it rang false from a man who was netting an absurd amount of money every year while callously locking workers out to get his way; and none of those over 7,000 workers would receive pay during the lockout. The Qantas lockout felt like the petulant action of a man who takes hostages first and asks questions later and indeed there were indicators it was retaliatory in nature:
Unions are angry about the timing of the fleet’s grounding. On Friday Joyce was awarded a 70% pay rise at Qantas’s annual AGM. Joyce said his decision was in response to the unions’ increased rhetoric following his pay rise.
“Unfortunately, after the AGM the unions were more aggressive. They were talking about 48-hour stoppages, ramping it up, baking us for a year,” he said. (source)
While the government initially took a hands-off approach in the dispute, Joyce’s action forced their hand. Thanks to some extremely tough anti-strike laws which have already been used to suppress union actions this year, including an earlier Qantas walkout, the government had the power to wield considerable clout.
The FairWork Act provides some of the strictest anti-strike laws in the West. Strikes are “permitted” only if enterprise agreement negotiations break down every three years — and then only if allowed by the industrial courts. Pattern bargaining, or campaigning industrially for similar conditions and rates throughout industry, is specifically ruled out. (source)
Implemented under the Rudd government, these tough laws have been supported under Gillard as well, and even before she became PM, she had a documented history of limited support for labour; speaking about a strike in 2010, Gillard said ‘They need to sit down, have a think and get back to work,’ so it’s pretty where she stood in the labour relations department. Needless to say, opposition leader Tony Abbott was delighted to have a chance to have a go at the Gillard government over the Qantas situation, claiming that the government was ‘allowing’ industrial actions to continue against the interests of the nation.
Ultimately, the resolution was a suspension of industrial action for 21 days, during which the airline and the unions were ordered to work out their differences or be sent to binding arbitration. Not quite what Joyce demanded, but not exactly a victory for the unions, either. We shall see what happens over the coming weeks as the parties return to the table, which was where the unions wanted to be all along. Joyce’s strategy may have worked; Qantas shares jumped after the order to return to normal operations.
This event matters not just for Australian workers, but on a global level. Anti-union sentiment is on the rise in many regions, as seen in the rash of unionbusting legislation in the US that occurred this year, and increasingly, unions seem to be regarded as the enemy. In this case, Qantas set itself up as the victim in a series of woeful press statements about how sorry it was that things have come to this pass; ‘look what you made me do,’ the airline declared, openly trashing the unions in its announcements to make it clear that this was where passengers should direct their anger. This despite the fact that union workers were fighting to keep Australian jobs, and advocating for the safety of the airline, creating a situation where the government was asked to intervene in a way that protected capital, but went against its own interests, as Emily pointed out when we discussed this case.
Artful misdirection is common in situations like this, where companies taking extreme unionbusting measures that harm their customers and their bottom line attempt to make it look like the unions are at fault for wanting things like fair pay and safe working conditions. The pay raise requested by Qantas employees, incidentally, didn’t even pace inflation. Angry travelers took the bait, claiming that the unions had ‘too much power’ and ‘shouldn’t be allowed.’
These tactics pull attention away from the real problem, which is increasingly unsafe and unpleasant working conditions for people working in vital positions, like the aircraft engineers responsible for making sure that maintenance and servicing are handled appropriately. The unionbashing has been going on for months now as the airline attempts to position unions as the bad guys, and it built to head with this dramatic move, which was calculated to make people attack workers, instead of the airline, and to break down solidarity between workers and the public.
Weakening worker solidarity has real consequences for workers, because it is only through collective strength that workers can hope to achieve a victory against a major company. International unions issued statements of support for the workers involved, providing a glimpse into a world where workers could work in international solidarity to protect everyone’s interests, and there was some public support, but not enough. Qantas just flexed its muscle, making the situation crystal clear for anyone who was in doubt: It’s always had the power in this dynamic, and it’s not afraid to use it.
Tell me, Mr. Joyce, in Qantas was in such dire financial straits that it can’t afford fair wages for its workers, why did you just accept a 71% pay raise? And why do you feel the need to make the workers the enemy?