Until now the Qantas dispute has been a conventional disagreement between an employer and its employees but yesterday’s call to effectively destroy the company means it has turned political and should trigger government intervention.
Whether it will prompt action by the Australian Government is the interesting question because the last thing the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, needs is for industrial relations to become a hot topic alongside asylum seekers, tax, and economic management.
But, unless she does ask unions to cool their campaign a precedent will have been set with militant unionists emboldened to take on other class enemies, especially iron ore miners in WA, with Rio Tinto at the top of their target list.
It might seem a long way from airlines to mining but changes made to industrial relations laws by the Rudd and Gillard governments mean that real power has been returned to unions, perhaps as a result of the Howard government swinging too far in favour of employers.
Whatever the cause, and whether the Howard government was right or wrong, is irrelevant because it is current events (and current laws) which matter and Qantas is the declared battle-ground for unions seeking to reclaim a role in the running of Australian business.
Why Qantas has been singled out as an industrial target is the easy part of understanding what’s happening. Aviation is a highly competitive business facing international cost pressures, while also being a business which can be stopped in its tracks by a handful of unskilled workers such as baggage handlers and catering staff.
Qantas, which once marketed itself as “the flying kangaroo” is easy road kill for a carefully orchestrated industrial campaign – of the sort seen in the on/off threats by unions which never quite become a strike and therefore do not incur any wage penalties, but which make it impossible to run the business.
Skills learned by union leaders in culling Qantas could work equally well if/when applied to the pressures points of an iron ore mine, such as on the railway system, ore handling at ports, or ship movements in the port.
Whether Qantas is a warm-up act for more widespread industrial action remains to be seen, though there is no doubt that some leading unionists (and members of the Gillard government) would love to see Rio Tinto brought to heel after its past historic victories over unions, and its leading role in last year’s anti mining tax campaign.
Before getting to the next action in the revival of union power it is important to consider what happened yesterday and why it represents a turning point in the Qantas dispute, and why it should trigger government intervention.
What happened was the call by a union leader for travellers to boycott of Qantas, as well as announcing plans to hold all-day stoppages which would ground most aircraft.
Steve Purvinas, federal secretary of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, told The Australian newspaper that if he was considering travelling between now and Christmas he would probably be looking at airlines other than Qantas.
“If I was a passenger, I wouldn’t be purchasing a ticket with them (Qantas) at this stage,” Purvinas was quoted as saying.
In other words, if you do buy a ticket with Qantas you risk being stuck at an airport for a few days, or stuck in a remote location with no way of getting home.
That is a potent threat which will work because most people will be keen to avoid becoming the meat in an industrial sandwich, and while not a full-blooded declaration of war it is the sort of comment which will drive business away from Qantas.
The irony in the attack on Qantas is that while union leaders probably think they are just attacking management they are also attacking the business which employs their members.
What is being unleashed by the Qantas dispute is a return to a situation where ordinary workers are being forced to split their loyalties between the employer and the union.
It is precisely the situation that mining companies suffered in the 1970s and 80s, leading to the creation of personal contracts which ensured a direct “loyalty link” between worker and employer and which sidelined unions – until now.