Tony Abbott has cheered on the announcement of 5000 job cuts at Qantas, salivating at the prospect of a company prepared to take on the unions. But neither Labor nor the union leaders are prepared to back the fight to save the jobs that is sorely needed.

Labor leader Bill Shorten focused his opposition on Abbott’s desire to amend the Qantas Sale Act to allow greater foreign ownership, accusing him of colluding in a plan to “export jobs overseas”. But a nationalist campaign in support of “Australian jobs” is not the solution.

Qantas is already cutting 5000 jobs now before the Act can even be changed. These jobs are not being exported, they are being destroyed. The staff that lose their jobs will not be replaced—those left behind will just be forced to work harder.

There is no need to accept Qantas’ demands for cost cuts. In the context of public concern about the thousands of job losses at Holden, Toyota, Alcoa and elsewhere, a fight for jobs at Qantas would win wide support.

Jobs before profits

Qantas says it is losing money, and without cutbacks to help restore the company’s profits might collapse. But if Qantas bosses cannot turn a profit the company’s workers should fight for nationalisation to save the jobs and guarantee continued services.

With such large distance between Australia’s cities air travel is an essential service, for travel as well as the transport of many goods and services. Qantas was government-owned until its privatisation in 1993 and could be taken into public hands again to guarantee jobs and services.

Nor is Qantas facing imminent closure. Before it announced losses over the last six months, its domestic business made $365 million in 2012-13.

Qantas and Virgin have both lost millions of dollars through scheduling extra domestic flights, more and more of them with empty seats. Qantas sees this as a short term sacrifice in order to maintain its stranglehold on the lucrative business market.

Australian domestic flights include the Sydney to Melbourne route, the fifth busiest airline route in the world. CEO Alan Joyce has also said Jetstar’s losses in the last six months are a result of its disastrous foray into Asia.

Where’s the fight?

But instead of fighting for jobs union leaders have accepted the airline’s goal of cutting labour costs. A joint Qantas unions’ statement committed the unions to “working with Qantas to developing a sustainable plan for growth”, simply insisting on “consultation” of the unions about these plans.

Transport Workers Union Secretary Tony Sheldon spelled out what this meant, saying he wanted to “discuss cost-saving measures to mitigate job losses”. In other words, the union would accept cuts to pay and conditions if the airline would reduce, not scrap, the job cuts.

But Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is happy to have it both ways—demanding a wage freeze, even on pay rises already locked in during previous enterprise bargaining, as well as the 5000 job cuts.

The weakness of Qantas unions has been Alan Joyce’s trump card as he pushes to slash the airline’s costs. In 2011 Joyce declared a lockout, dramatically grounding the entire Qantas fleet in order to force Fair Work Australia to ban all further industrial action. This was deeply damaging for Qantas, costing it $20 million a day, something the airline could not have sustained for long. The unions could have called his bluff and turned the lockout into an ongoing strike, but instead they caved in and went along with the ban on further strikes or industrial action.

Union leaders have been unwilling to lead a fight for jobs at Holden, Toyota or SPC. Instead they have looked to lobbying government to bail out the companies through subsidies. But billions of dollars in subsidies over decades have not saved jobs in the car industry—the bosses simply pocketed the money and kept cutting jobs and wages in the name of remaining profitable.

Fight from below

In the face of the union leaders’ unwillingness, a fight will have to come from rank-and-file union members and workers.

This would require a united union campaign at Qantas—one that brings together workers from across the company’s 15 separate unions.

Too often in the past, individual unions have agreed to sign separate deals, undermining the prospect of united action.

As the cost of lockout in 2011 shows, serious strike action would hit Qantas hard. If workers shut down the airline, the impact on businesses across the country could also force the government to act.

With 5000 jobs on the line, and conditions for those that remain likely to worsen, Qantas workers have nothing to lose.

By James Supple

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