Union militancy just doesn't fly
Qantas is fighting for its life and had no option but to take strong action.
The Qantas action to bring its disputes with unions to a head is justified. The federal government's fair work system, combined with rising union militancy, has led to this very serious impasse.
The bargaining for agreements with the three protagonist unions has been exhaustive. Negotiations with two of the unions commenced more than 12 months ago and the parties have held more than 200 meetings.
The scenes of union members marching through terminals were confronting. They wore vests, carried banners and were shepherded by union officials bellowing into megaphones. It appeared the chants were meant to convince travellers the delays they were to experience were justified.
The disputes have been fierce. There have been reports of intimidation of workers who didn't join union action, threats, and damage to property. Inflammatory comments have emanated from both sides. Union leaders have warned us against flying with Qantas before Christmas. It now appears many travellers took heed.
The parties say they have settled significant parts of the claims. The confrontation appears to come down to a fundamental issue: the airline needs to be able to run its own business.
The pilots' association wants Qantas pay and conditions to apply on all flights with subsidiary airlines. Jetstar would be less competitive and its current agreements would be overruled.
The engineers' union wants to protect jobs by refusing to entertain work changes that accommodate procedures for new generation aircraft.
The Transport Workers Union, which covers baggage handlers, ground staff, catering and freight employees, is trying to limit, if not prevent, the use of contractors and labour-hire employees to meet peaks and troughs in operational demands.
Qantas claims the industrial action was causing losses of $15 million a week. The unions were sending signals of intensifying the industrial action.
Qantas was faced with draining losses over a long period. Acceptance of the unions' more contentious claims would jeopardise the survival of the company. Qantas management is to be congratulated for refusing to stand by and let this happen. In the end Qantas had no option but to take strong action.
Why did the dispute get to this juncture? The tactics adopted by the unions are symptomatic of other disputes.
Union officials are using the new bargaining rules to orchestrate protracted negotiations for an enterprise agreement. Industrial campaigns involving bans, strikes, belatedly cancelled strikes and media attacks are now common. Qantas is the most recognised example, but similar protracted campaigns have affected Toyota, BHP coal mines, customs, police, buses and public servants.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data show an increase in most measures of industrial disputation for the June quarter of this year. Working days lost rose from 20,000 in the March quarter to 66,000 in the June quarter.
Construction industry numbers are the worst for seven years.
The unions now display a confidence that the Fair Work Act has given them an enhanced ability to beat employers into submission.
Union militancy may have been tolerated in decades past, but it is an economic anachronism in today's connected and competitive world.
Unsurprisingly, militancy is not helping the unions. Membership remains stuck at low levels. Coverage has fallen to 14 per cent in the private sector and 19 per cent overall.
Unpleasant outcomes are on the horizon. A short-sighted game is being played. It will unravel when the economy deteriorates, if not before.
Workplaces with diminished employer/employee engagement will be less efficient. Inflexible agreements and rules constraining employment options will limit responses to tough trading conditions. Employers will respond by driving down labour costs, employing fewer people and transferring jobs offshore.
The ramifications of this dispute will play out for a long time. It should become a catalyst for change to the rules governing bargaining and agreement making. Union militancy should be consigned to history. If not, Australia will continue to suffer economic damage.