The actions of Qantas in locking out its workforce yesterday, led by CEO Alan Joyce who on Friday received a 71% increase in his remuneration, have huge potential to backfire.
Bernard Keane encapsulates Joyce’s strategy:
Alan Joyce’s logic is the elegant reasoning of a terrorist.
If the result of his massive disruption of the Australian transport system is the further shredding of the Qantas brand, which began under Geoff Dixon and which has accelerated rapidly under his Irish successor, and leads to further service cuts as Australians turns their back on the airline, that’s fine.
It will merely expedite his plans to offshore-by-stealth Qantas, wrecking the Australian-based operation while he sets about establishing lower-cost, more competitive foreign-based services.
To this end, a furious reaction against the airline for its act of malice toward Australian travellers is a price well worth paying; indeed, it may be part of the longer-term plan.
Joyce’s actions and motivations are almost a parody of the globalising logic that profits are all, workers, customers and any notion of public service or good nothing. And it’s in that quality of excess, in the gamble for high stakes, that his house of cards has the real potential to come tumbling down.
It shouldn’t escape notice that the Chair of the Qantas Board, Leigh Clifford, hails from Rio Tinto, a company long known for its overt deunionisation strategy. There is undoubtedly an element of union busting in all this, as well as a broader push from the more militant elements of the Australia corpocracy to smash the Fair Work Act. Peter Reith’s high profile interventions have to be seen in this context.
Hence, Qantas’ other play here, through keeping its cards close to its chest and failing to inform the government of the planned lockout (let alone passengers), was to force the government to bring the dispute before Fair Work Australia. Hence, too, Anthony Albanese’ fury.
But, as Bernard Keane also observes, there is real opportunity for the government.
There is no doubt that Qantas’ public relations offensive has failed. Essential Research found last week that 43% of respondents supported renationalisation of the airline, a large number blamed Qantas management rather than workers, and very large majorities opposed offshoring and thought Joyce’s remuneration too high.
The polling is not unambiguous, but there’s a plethora of pointers to how Joyce’s sneak attack has resonated, from a Facebook protest page which garnered almost 4000 likes in less than 24 hours, to the reaction on Twitter. The timing, coming on top of his huge pay rise on Friday, and the massive disruption and frustration caused to passengers on a Saturday afternoon, is so stupid as to beggar belief.
Joyce has exemplified the mindset of the 1% at a time when the Occupy X movement has successfully put systemic critique back on the agenda.
So, how does all this have the potential to backfire on Joyce?
First, it’s being discussed by many as the most spectacular example of management aggression since Patrick’s locked out its workers on the docks in 1998. Unlike the waterfront dispute, the impact on the public is much more palpable and much more direct.
Secondly, as Ben Schneiders correctly observes in the Sydney Morning Herald today, there is the potential for Fair Work Australia to arbitrate the dispute, a power now rarely used, and only available to the tribunal in the case of significant disruption to the national economy. The Minister, Chris Evans, could also make orders to both sides to cease industrial action, though that would be a last resort. The Fair Work Act emphasises bargaining in good faith, and it may well be that the tribunal will find that Qantas has not been. Then, there are legal questions over whether extending the lockout to employees who were not engaging in industrial action, and standing down others, is lawful.
Given that Qantas is seeking to put FWA on trial, and that the legislation is so closely identified with Julia Gillard, the arguments put by the Commonwealth will repay close watching. It would also be surprising if there were not pressure to tighten the provisions whereby management (unlike unions) does not have to give genuine notice of its intent to pursue industrial action. Qantas’ actions in grounding its fleet immediately, and alleging that the lockout would not begin on Monday, are specious in the extreme.
It’s crucial to remember that Joyce, far from pulling his fleet from the sky as a “response to union action”, has himself, according to the legal definition, taken industrial action.
More broadly, as Schneiders comments, there may be momentum for a broader use of the arbitration power, to protect the public interest.
Thirdly, Qantas faces some pointed questioning over its obligations under the Qantas Act which enabled privatisation. There are specific provisions, reflected in the airline’s own constitution, which require it to maintain its operations in Australia, and restrict it from flying internationally under another name. The unions have corresponded with Qantas about this, and the management line has been that subsidiaries are not bound. But Senate hearings have been examining legislation introduced by Nick Xenophon and Greens Leader Bob Brown which would close off this option. If such amendments were to be supported by the government, we would be in a very interesting place indeed.
And finally, as Bernard Keane writes:
Voters, it seems, just want their old Qantas back. In the view of Joyce and the Qantas board, they can’t get it back in the airline’s current form, not given continuing strong competition from government-subsidised foreign airlines and the high dollar. The only way to get the old Qantas back may indeed be to nationalise it and subsidise it, or to return to the days when competition from foreign airlines was even more tightly restricted than it is now.
And no one in federal politics is pushing those options. Well, not yet.
In a climate when the recklessness and contempt of corporate power reveals its naked face, the government would have little to lose, and much to gain, from reining it in. We shall see.
Alan Joyce is being crazy brave. So, too, should Julia Gillard be.
NB: To keep comments focused, please leave your response on Helen’s open thread. Comments on this post are closed.
Update: Laura Tingle.