The battlelines are being drawn at Qantas, with management maintaining its belligerence against unions in Enterprise Bargaining negotiations. While the engineers union has postponed any strike action, there is now the possibility of co-ordinated strike action with the pilots. And as Steve Creedy noted in The Australian, Qantas, “faces the prospect of a third union, the Transport Workers Union, joining the fray,” when it starts talks with Qantas in July.
Co-ordinated strike action would be a welcome development. The proposed two-day strike by pilots and engineers will need to lead to further strikes if they are to beat Qantas.
A union victory against a big, iconic and belligerent employer could give other workers confidence to take on their own bosses, and provide an example of how to fight and win.
Behind the industrial disputes are efforts by the airline to set up subsidiaries to undermine pay and conditions and send some Australian operations offshore. This explains the importance of the union demands for guaranteed job security.
Qantas is restructuring the way it operates in the face of competition with Middle East airlines, such as Emirates, for travel between Australia and Europe.
In a hint of the company’s plans, in February it claimed, “the international business is not sustainable in its current form and change is imperative for it to survive”.
The company increasingly uses pilots from its budget carriers, including Jetstar. They are not employed by Qantas and in some cases are paid as much as 50 per cent less.
Pilots point to Qantas’s practice in New Zealand. A subsidiary, Jetconnect, is now flying routes previously flown by Qantas. Although flown under the Qantas brand, pilots and crew work under New Zealand pay and conditions, which are lower.
Pilots are concerned that Qantas will replicate this model somewhere in Asia. In April, Qantas said it was bidding to set up a hub in Shanghai in partnership with a Chinese domestic carrier.
Then in May, The Australian reported that Qantas was considering starting a new Asian-based airline in Malaysia. This would include Asian-based engineering facilities.
And it all comes down to profit again. As financial journalist John Durie explained, “The aim of the plan would be to extend the airline’s reach into Asia and in the process reduce its cost base.”
United union action at Qantas to defend wages and conditions has never been more urgent.
By Tom Orsag