Workers Vanguard No. 998
16 March 2012
Labor Government Backs Anti-Union Attacks at Qantas
The following article, datelined December 20, is reprinted from Australasian Spartacist No. 215 (Summer 2011/12), newspaper of the Spartacist League of Australia. In the latest round of an ongoing assault against the unionized workforce at Qantas, the airline’s management announced on February 16 that they intend to cut a further 500 engineering, maintenance and catering jobs, with the possibility of many more to come. These job cuts occur in the context of the continued ban on industrial action by two principal Qantas unions that was imposed by the federal Australian Labor Party (ALP) government’s workplace relations tribunal. One of the three unions that had been involved in the dispute, the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, cut a deal with Qantas in December.
Far from taking up the fight to defend jobs, the pilots union has ruled out “any stop-work action for long-haul pilots in 2012.” For its part, the Transport Workers Union issued a February 23 statement declaring, “An Australian Icon such as the Flying Kangaroo deserves the best workforce to keep Australian skies safe. TWU will keep up the fight to retain quality Jobs in Australia. Only then Qantas can still call Australia home.” Bowing to the bosses’ state and peddling nationalist protectionism stand counterposed to the necessity for international class struggle against the profit-gouging airline bosses.
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After months of bitter negotiations with the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA), Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU), at 5 p.m. on 29 October Qantas CEO Alan Joyce grounded the airline’s entire domestic and international fleet while threatening a lockout if unions did not accede to management’s push to slash at least 1,000 jobs and drive down labour costs. Not satisfied with an increase in pre-tax profits of more than $550 million [US$577 million] last financial year, and having just received a hefty $2 million pay increase, Joyce carried out this union-busting act as a deliberate ploy to bring about the intervention of the federal ALP government and a ban on all industrial action at Qantas.
Qantas management’s actions in shutting down the airline have been compared to media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s attack on the British print unions in 1986, and the attack on the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in 1998, when Patrick Stevedores boss, Chris Corrigan, sacked the unionised workforce and replaced them with scabs. Reminiscent of the tactics employed in the Patrick dispute, Qantas has been training an Australian-based strikebreaking force of baggage handlers and ground staff in Los Angeles and locally. In their insatiable thirst for ever-greater profits, the Qantas bosses’ goal is to break this historically highly unionised workforce, if not smash the unions outright. And in Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford, they have their perfect anti-union crusader.
For years, the execrable Clifford directed Rio Tinto’s campaign to destroy union power in the mining sector and impose individual contracts on workers. This included the 1997 battle at the New South Wales [NSW] Hunter Valley No. 1 Coalmine, which resulted in a defeat for the mining and maritime unions, not least due to the treachery of the Laborite union tops (see “Hunter Valley Miners’ Strike Knifed by Union Tops,” Australasian Spartacist No. 161, Spring 1997). This defeat ultimately paved the way for the broader decimation of jobs and conditions in the mining industry and the assault on the MUA in 1998.
Far from the necessary hard fought class-struggle defence of jobs, including strikes and pickets to shut down Qantas, the pro-capitalist union tops have pushed nationalist protectionist poison while acceding to the federal Labor government’s draconian anti-union laws all along the line. In late June, ALAEA federal secretary, Steve Purvinas, offered to mobilise rostered-off ALAEA members as strikebreakers if the union carried out rolling stoppages! Purvinas explained, “we think it important that it is clear that the Australian national interest would be catered for with our campaign by making options available for Qantas to avoid disruptions” (www.aviationbusiness.com.au, 28 June 2011). This outrageous proposal for union scabherding was never put into practice, not least because the union tops called off stoppages planned for July.
Indeed, following the Qantas shutdown, the union misleaders boasted how little industrial action had been taken. In a 30 October 2011 statement, newly-elected federal ALP vice-president and TWU national secretary, Tony Sheldon, bragged that “TWU members have taken a total of eight hours industrial action throughout the course of this dispute over eight months of negotiations.” A day later AIPA president, Barry Jackson, declared on the ABC Lateline program that pilots “were taking very low-range industrial action, wearing red ties and making positive PAs [public announcements]....” Such abject grovelling only serves to embolden the bosses to step up their attacks.
Labor’s “Fair Work” Arbitration Death Grip
Within an hour of Joyce stranding some 70,000 passengers worldwide on 29 October 2011, the government applied for an emergency meeting of Fair Work Australia (FWA), the national workplace relations tribunal established to enforce the government’s draconian anti-union laws. By early Monday morning FWA had done exactly what Qantas knew they would and banned all industrial action while directing both parties into a 21-day negotiating period. Obeisant to the government and the bosses’ courts, Unions NSW [statewide labor federation] immediately cancelled a rally in support of Qantas workers called for later that day. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) misleaders “welcomed” the termination of all industrial action. With typical class-collaborationist and nationalist zeal, ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence declared:
“Our immediate priority now is to work with management to get the planes back in the air, but then we will approach negotiations in a genuine spirit of conciliation and expect Qantas management to do the same.
“The key issue for negotiation is the future of Qantas jobs in Australia, and there must be a continuing role for the government during these talks to ensure job security.”
—ACTU website, 31 October 2011
As expected, talks between the unions and management collapsed and the dispute was directed to compulsory arbitration, a graveyard for union struggles. The arbitration courts are no “independent umpire” but a part of the capitalist state apparatus, which straitjackets union struggles in almost every sphere. The meaning of the unions’ acceptance of forced arbitration was captured by Murdoch’s Australian, which gleefully trumpeted on 25 November 2011 that Qantas would now be “strike-free for four years.” Down with compulsory arbitration! For a class-struggle fight to defend the unions against the ALP government and bosses’ FWA union-busting!
The bourgeoisie have seized on the Qantas dispute to increase pressure on the minority ALP government to tighten its anti-union legislation and enforce earlier state intervention against unions in industrial disputes. Meanwhile bosses throughout the country aim to emulate Qantas. As an article in the 30 October 2011 Melbourne Age pointed out, “For the many Australian companies that have been wanting to destroy unions for years, it will be an exciting ride.”
In early November it was revealed that the Victorian Liberal/National Coalition government, currently in dispute with the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) over wages and staff-patient ratios, were planning to lock out nurses “Qantas-style” if they took part in industrial action. In contrast to the Qantas unions, nurses twice defied FWA rulings and continued industrial action that closed hospital beds. After the third FWA ruling, the ANF tops capitulated to the anti-strike judgment and recommended instead a series of impotent lunchtime “community pickets” outside hospitals.
In a further escalation of the anti-union attacks, on 13 December 2011 stevedoring company POAGS locked out hundreds of wharfies at Fremantle and Bunbury in Western Australia and Port Kembla in New South Wales, in response to MUA bans and stoppages over wages and safety conditions. Chaired by union-buster Chris Corrigan, POAGS helicoptered in management scabs over the pickets of striking workers at Port Kembla, and has reportedly used management scabs at Bunbury and contracted out work at Fremantle to Patrick Stevedores, Corrigan’s former company. Almost immediately upon being sworn in as Labor’s new federal workplace relations minister, Bill Shorten intervened and brokered a deal for the MUA and POAGS to enter four weeks conciliation before FWA. Bowing to arbitration and FWA, the MUA tops immediately agreed to drop all industrial action. Once again, due to the union tops’ treacherous reliance on the courts, the bosses got exactly what they wanted. Commenting that the company would be able to resume normal operations, POAGS managing director declared “We are very grateful for the intervention of the minister and Fair Work Australia...” (Australian, 15 December 2011).
What the capitalists can get away with depends on the outcome of class struggle. Last month workers at the Baiada Poultry plant in the Melbourne suburb of Laverton struck against the company’s employment of casual labour for as little as $8 an hour. The heavily immigrant workforce, organised by the National Union of Workers, shut down production with a militant picket line that repelled police and scab attempts to break it. This enabled the workers to win site rates for all. From Qantas to the waterfront, from the New South Wales public sector to Victorian nurses, workers are eager to fight back against the escalating anti-union attacks. The chief obstacle to bringing proletarian power to bear is the current misleadership of the unions. Committed to preserving capitalist rule, the union tops peddle nationalist poison and divert working-class struggles into parliamentary and legalistic channels. To repel the bosses’ growing attacks it is necessary to mobilise independently of the capitalist state and intransigently take up the fight against capitalist oppression.
It is necessary to forge a leadership that will not bow to the bosses’ anti-union laws and arbitration courts, which serve only to keep workers’ struggles firmly within the bounds of what is acceptable to the capitalist ruling class. In stark contrast to the existing Laborite union misleaders, a class-struggle leadership would fight to win workers to the understanding that the capitalist state—consisting at its core of police, prisons, courts and military—exists to enforce the rule of the bourgeoisie who grow fat from the profits generated by the exploitation of workers labour power. As Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin spelled out in his 1917 pamphlet, State and Revolution, the state cannot be reformed or pressured into acting on behalf of workers and the oppressed. It must be shattered by workers revolution and replaced by a workers state that expropriates the capitalist class.
The ALP-loyal union bureaucracy works hand in glove with their Labor parliamentary brethren. The ALP is a bourgeois workers party. While it has a pro-capitalist leadership and program, it is based on and organically tied to the trade unions. When in power the ALP rules for the capitalists. It was entrusted by the bourgeoisie to run Australia during both imperialist world wars last century. In 1949 Labor prime minister Ben Chifley sent troops into the mines to break the coal strike. Following in Chifley’s footsteps, in 1989 the Hawke Labor government embarked on a scabherding operation by using the military against the pilots’ union. In political struggle against the Laborite union tops, who time and again sell out workers’ interests for the bosses’ profits, the SL/A fights to win the working-class base of the ALP away from its pro-capitalist leadership in the struggle to build a multiracial revolutionary workers party.
For Class Struggle Against Union-Busting “Outsourcing”!
As part of its attempts to drive down labour costs and extract various concessions from its unionised workforce, over the last decade Qantas has been establishing new airline subsidiaries where workers are paid less and have worse conditions than at Qantas. Such is the case at Jetstar, Qantas’ low-fare domestic carrier, and at international subsidiaries including Jetstar Asia and Jetstar Pacific, based in Singapore and Vietnam respectively, and at Jetconnect, which carries passengers between New Zealand and Australia. Hoping to gain greater access to the booming intra-Asian passenger traffic, Qantas has also declared its intention to establish a low-cost premium subsidiary airline operation out of Singapore, or a code-share alliance with Malaysian Airlines operating out of Kuala Lumpur.
In Australia, Qantas is increasingly using cheap contract labour to work overtime. This is a wedge against the pay and conditions of the already lowly-paid permanent staff organised by the TWU, which represents baggage handlers and ramp services staff, including caterers. Recognising that their jobs, wages and conditions are increasingly on the line, AIPA pilots and TWU workers have correctly demanded those employed by Qantas subsidiaries, and those contracted by labour-hire companies to do ground service work, must get the same wages as the currently unionised workers.
A class-struggle leadership of the unions would fight to organise the unorganised into the unions, with full union rates, conditions and responsibilities. In doing so it would stand opposed to the parasitic labour-hire companies and fight for trade-union control of hiring and training. This is the only way to undercut the bosses’ attempts to manipulate hiring as a tool to divide the working class along racial, national and religious lines, or as a means of screening out pro-union militants. It is crucial to the unity and integrity of the working class that unionised permanent full-time workers champion the rights of those forced into contract and casual employment—disproportionately women, immigrants and the most oppressed layers of the class. Such a struggle would not only reverse the decline in union membership but draw into the unions new and powerful sources of fighting strength. Recruiting new layers of immigrant workers would provide a bridge to proletarian struggles overseas, not least in the international airline industry.
It is also vital that Qantas workers, organised in multiple unions, overcome craftist divisions and fight for “One out! All out!” backed by mass pickets that no one dares cross. Against the Qantas bosses’ attempts at scabherding, the airline unions must mobilise jointly and fight in defence of casual workers and the unemployed, bringing them onto picket lines and into the unions. This is how the vitally necessary industrial unions will be forged. In Australia there should be an industrial union of airline workers—from cleaners to pilots—who are organised and fight together in the one union.
Capitalist Attacks on Workers Jettison Safety
There are few industries in which the relationship between working conditions, passenger service and safety is as direct as it is in air transport. The savage competition inherent to capitalism drives airline companies to compromise on comfort and safety in order to boost their bottom line. Passengers are crowded into planes while the workers handling their luggage, the flight attendants serving them and the maintenance workers and pilots are overworked and driven to exhaustion. As Qantas has ramped up its attacks against the unions it has been beset by a series of frightening and potentially deadly incidents.
In July 2008, a Qantas Boeing 747 carrying almost 350 passengers was forced to make an emergency landing in Manila after an oxygen tank exploded on board and ripped a gaping hole in the fuselage the “size of a mini-van.” In October of the same year, the flight computer system on a Qantas A330-300 Airbus carrying more than 300 passengers went haywire and the plane “dropped like a brick” plunging toward the earth. More than 100 people were injured, 14 seriously. Reportedly, pilots have taken to calling Qantas’ new A380 Airbuses, “scarebuses.” A little more than a year ago, an engine on a Qantas A380 Airbus exploded on a flight out of Singapore, forcing Qantas to ground its entire fleet of these superjumbo jets. Then, last April, an A380 suffered two tyre blow-outs on landing in Sydney, due to a problem with its brakes. During the dispute Qantas has opposed ALAEA’s demand for maintenance checks on new aircraft between arrival and departure, declaring these unnecessary because new planes have an electronic system that alerts the airline when there is a problem. One might ask who checks the electronic systems? It is in the direct and immediate interests of passengers and airline workers that unions fight for union safety committees with the power to shut down unsafe aircraft and airlines.
Responding to Qantas’ push to “offshore” maintenance tasks, ALAEA’s Steve Purvinas declared, “We know that the dramatic increase in the number of safety incidents involving Qantas jets coincides with an increase in the amount of work that is no longer carried out in-house.” The capitalists will exploit cheaper sources of labour, under worse conditions, when and wherever they can get it. However rather than aiding in the organisation of engineers in other countries and helping them enforce union-run training and safety regulations, the union bureaucrats here have lined up to promote Qantas as a “national icon.” Thus they appeal to parliament to strengthen the 1992 Qantas Sale Act to compel both Qantas and its subsidiaries to retain their “main operational base” in Australia.
This parliamentarist belly-crawling and “Australia-first” protectionism was summed up by one ALAEA spokesman who declared more than a week before the Qantas shutdown, “If the Prime Minister were to look at intervening they should look at the Qantas sale act and should be making sure the Qantas board do the right thing and protect Australian jobs” (Herald Sun, 20 October 2011). More recently, in the gross traditions of “White Australia,” TWUer Tony Sheldon despicably railed against the “Asianisation” of Qantas. Such xenophobic, chauvinist poison, which lines workers up behind their own exploiters, is an obstacle to organising the multiracial proletariat in defence of jobs and conditions. It divides the international working class and is thus utterly suicidal in an industry that is international in scope.
On 19 December 2011 it was reported that ALAEA had agreed to a deal with Qantas management that gives engineers a piddling three percent pay rise over the next three years—effectively a reduction in real wages—while allowing the airline to cut costs and weaken conditions. “Hand-in-hand” with Qantas management on the agreement, the union tops claim the deal will “secure the jobs of our members on shore” and retain the practice of licensed engineers inspecting every aircraft before take off. In reality, however, this deal opens the way for the introduction of lower paid and less qualified A-licence workers to perform basic maintenance tasks, which at present must be done by licensed engineers. The union also abandoned its claim for the construction of a hangar to service Qantas’ fleet of A380s. It is little wonder that an ebullient Alan Joyce declared the agreement “does not contain any of the restrictive demands that would have handed control of parts of the airline to the union,” and renewed calls for adopting new practices, i.e., lower maintenance, for modern aircraft.
Airline workers have enormous social power—the world economy could not function without them. But instead of airline unions wielding that power by standing united at home and mobilising for international class solidarity abroad, internationally they have been picked off one by one by ruthless national-based carriers. On 1 October 2011, 2,600 Filipino workers organised by the Philippine Airlines Employees Association (PALEA) were locked out and sacked by Philippine Airlines (PAL) after they protested the airline’s attempt to slash wages, destroy job security and bust the union through “outsourcing” jobs. If PAL gets its way more than 60 percent of the PALEA unionists will be thrown out of work.
Against the drive of airline bosses to force workers into a “race to the bottom” in order to keep their jobs, airline workers must strive to find allies among unionised labour overseas, including among those workers in struggle at foreign carriers. As the PALEA declared in an October statement of solidarity with Qantas workers:
“...only industrial action can force employers to heed the demands of workers....
“PALEA is not alone. And Qantas workers are not alone. Our supporters in the Philippines say ‘We are all PALEANS.’ To you, we say ‘We are all Qantas workers’.”
While there have been numerous protests in solidarity with Qantas workers by International Transport Workers Federation affiliates across the globe, and a delegation from Doro-Chiba (Japan Railway workers) picketed the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo in solidarity with PALEA workers, such actions need to be turned into a campaign of labour struggles. For Qantas and PAL workers, victory may well depend on international working-class solidarity actions to prevent these union-busting airlines from moving their aircraft, thus affecting profit margins. Marxists declare: the workers have no country. Workers of the world unite!
For a Revolutionary Internationalist Workers Party!
The contradiction between the inherently international character of the airline industry and how it is operated by nationally-based rival carriers provides a crystalline example of the generalised anarchy of capitalist production for profit. With the crazed capitalist rulers the world over seeking to bust unions and destroy workers livelihoods in order to pay for their global economic crisis, class struggle is the only road to defending workers against this assault. To prepare for the battles ahead, there needs to be a political fight to replace the union bureaucrats with a leadership committed to mobilising the proletariat’s power independently of the capitalist state and politicians, in the interests of all the exploited and oppressed. This fight is part of forging a multiracial revolutionary workers party capable of leading struggles to not only improve present conditions but to do away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery.
In Australia, the ALP remains the main obstacle on the road to workers power. As we stated in 1989 when the Hawke government mobilised the military as scabs against the pilots’ union:
“From its parliamentary wing, which today administers the capitalist state, to its trade union leaders who police the working class for the bosses, it’s a party whose sole purpose is to save the capitalist system. Workers need their own, revolutionary party, built in struggle against the ALP through splitting its working class base from the scabherding pro-capitalist tops. Only such a revolutionary party can lead all the oppressed in the conquest of state power, expropriating the capitalists who have looted the country and run its plants into the ground, and through planned socialist reconstruction build a society with justice, decency and freedom for all: a workers republic of Australia as part of a socialist Asia.”
—“All Out to Shut Down the
Airports!” (ASp Supplement,
8 September 1989)