Some QANTAS workers are more equal than others …

The Australian government sold Qantas for $2.1 billion in two tranches, first by a sale of 25% to British Airways in 1993 and the remaining 75% by public float in mid-1995. At about the same time the Australian government sold all the major airports in Australia.

Previously in 1992, the Australian government sold its publicly owned domestic carrier to QANTAS. Australian Airlines, publicly owned, was one of the most profitable airlines in the world. Roll on 30 years to the COVID19 pandemic in 2022, QANTAS has a revenue of over $5.9B.

QANTAS leases many of its planes while its jumbos, the A380s, are in mothballs with their pilots stood down.

Who does own QANTAS in 2022? Is it owned by foreign hedge funds and financial institutions? Who owns the QANTAS debt? Are the government’s rules against foreign ownership effective?

In 2009, QANTAS CEO Alan Joyce took ‘the Cobar option’, that is withdrawing all work from its employees; standing them all down with the threat of the sack. He got management to load and unload the planes. This was unsafe. The Fair Work Commission endorsed this move by QANTAS. They threw up their hands knowing it was unfair. Joyce threatened to sack all QANTAS workers again if they were re-instated under fair work conditions.

Not for the first or last time. Such moves by the Fair Work Commission have generally favoured employers and had bipartisan support in the Australian parliament.

At no stage did the peak union body, the ACTU, mount a strong industrial campaign against secondary boycotts. This could have saved Qantas workers.

In 1989 the airlines sacked all the pilots and the government replaced them with military personnel. The government refused to repeal sections 45 D and E of the Trade Practices Act which made secondary boycotts unlawful.

These laws were introduced by the Fraser government during the live export of cattle dispute in the late 1970s to crush the meatworkers union.

Similar laws are now used against all workers and their unions that stand up to companies like QANTAS demanding a fair go.

Secondary boycotts are essential because workers can impose black bands against a company that is not treating its workers fairly.

Also, unions can impose green bans for social and community issues – environmental issues – on companies that insist on polluting with the burning of fossil fuels.

So the secondary boycott’s strength is that one set of workers could go on strike against their own company and try to influence their company’s dealings with a third party company.

In this case, subsidiaries of Qantas could be supported by, say legacy staff, that are employed directly by Qantas; for example, people on the ground could refuse to load baggage onto planes where they feel that the Qantas stewards employed by the subsidiary company are being treated unfairly. That’s 4PR – voice of the people. Let’s go out with Dusty Springfield singing ‘Windmills of your mind’.

Ian Curr
6 Sep 2022

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