Ged Kearney opinion piece: If a union did this, all hell would break loose

First Alan, congratulations on your pay rise, and congratulations on Qantas’ profit in the last financial year.

But sadly, I can’t congratulate you on your decision to take your bat and ball, and your aeroplanes, and go home.

Just some of the destinations you couldn't get to this week on Qantas thanks to the guy on the right.

Let me make this clear, you had a lot of options to resolve this dispute, but you picked the nuclear option, the one that caused the most disruption to passengers and the tourism industry.

On Saturday you chose to become the CEO that stops the nation, grounding Qantas’ fleet and stranding thousands of people from outback doctors, foreign leaders, and Spring Carnival punters.

Today you are talking about a win. Tell that to these passengers and the tourism operators who rely on you. Tell that to your staff who are left confused and embarrassed by your actions.

Fair Work Australia has terminated your industrial action, told you to get Qantas back in the air, and to negotiate an agreement with employees.

The reason they did this was that they believed Qantas’ behaviour was causing severe damage to the economy. That’s Qantas’ behaviour, not the behaviour of the unions.

Unions must give 72 hours notice before stoppages. We accept this, and sometimes give longer notice, because we recognise that they are a last resort and have effects on customers and the employees involved.

Your decision to stop flights immediately was the management equivalent of a wildcat strike. It was an act of petulance and contempt for workers, for the industrial relations system and for passengers.

I hope you realise the damage you have done to Qantas and to Australia. To accuse unions of “trashing” the Qantas brand, and then unilaterally decide to shut Qantas down with no warning, stranding passengers from all over the world, is an unbelievable hypocrisy.

Unions representing your workers had spent 18 months trying to get yourself and Qantas management to address what its plans for the future are.

In August, you announced a restructure which will see 1000 jobs slashed as part of a new emphasis on Asia, and we are concerned that this is just the beginning of plans to send jobs offshore.

I will not apologise for trying to defend Australian jobs. Qantas is one of the most profitable airlines in the world, and one with a unique history bound up in the development of Australia as a nation.

The unions involved have major concerns about Qantas’ plans to send jobs offshore – cutting pay and possibly reducing safety standards.

All businesses have to operate within the laws that govern industrial relations in this country; in Qantas’ case this includes the Qantas Sale Act which requires the majority of Qantas’ maintenance, administration, training, catering and flight operations facilities remain in Australia.

It is a measure of Qantas’ disregard for the industrial relations system that the shutdown also included short haulage, domestic flights, where there is no bargaining on a new pay deal underway.

The lock-out also included pilots, who had not stopped work for a minute, and whose industrial action has been limited to wearing red ties and using on board announcements to outline their case.

In your efforts to win this battle, I think you have forgotten about the bigger picture.

I’m saying this not just as a representative of union members amongst your staff, but as a regular and proud Qantas customer. I have travelled with the airline because of its safety and quality of service, and because of its commitment to Australia.

I believe that in a world where Qantas faces competition from other airlines, its uniquely Australian identity is something that sets it apart. But, like your perfect safety record, it is something that once gone, cannot be bought back.

You said that your actions in shutting down Qantas have brought “certainty” to passengers. My worry is that for some of them that certainty is a certainty they will not use Qantas again.

What are the long-term effects on the morale of Qantas staff from this action? What are the effects of telling them that they are the problem that needs fixing? What is the damage of pulling loyal customers off flights about to take off and telling them the airline is grounded indefinitely?

As of last week - before stoppages were announced - Essential Media polling showed that 36 per cent of Australians blamed Qantas management for the dispute, 37 blamed workers and management equally and only 13 per cent blamed Qantas workers alone.

Qantas’ competitive challenge on international routes is not as a result of the wages paid to its staff or the costs of doing business in Australia.

Qantas competes with airlines that are Government-owned. Three government-owned airlines (Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand) already make up 25 per cent of international flights to and from Australia.

These airlines are not just concerned with making a profit, but with boosting tourism to hubs like Singapore and Dubai, and are not competing equally with Qantas.

My concern now is that we get the planes back into the air, get back to the negotiating table and have a real discussion about Qantas’ future as an Australian airline. For you, it doesn’t matter if your gamble doesn’t work out. You’re employable, you can shift to another company and try again.

But for thousands of Qantas staff who were there before you arrived, who have given their working lives to building the airline’s reputation, your militant behaviour has put their future at risk.


Op ed appeared in The Punch 01.10.11