Saturday, 29 October 2011

Airline wages war on staff with lockout

The Australian airline Qantas has taken extreme measures in an industrial dispute with three unions. According to a press release on the company's website, they have grounded all flights and locked out staff until the unions "drop the extreme demands that have made it impossible for agreements to be reached." The unions have condemned the move as a "maniacal overreaction."

The lock out comes after a series of strikes by the Australian Licenced Engineers Union (ALAEA), the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the Australian and International Pilots Union (AIPA).

It was back in July that AIPA voted to take its first strike action since 1966 against the potential of long-haul pilots jobs being outsourced. The following month, the announcement of a restructure and outsourcing, which would cost 1,000 jobs. Supposedly, this would prevent the A$20 million losses the company was suffering annually, yet later the same month Qantas announced that it had doubled its full-year net profit to A$250 million. A wave of strikes followed the restructure announcement, with the last one by the TWU taking place only yesterday.

As with the British Airways dispute in Britain, there was heavy pressure applied on the strikers. Travel agents called on the government to intervene, only days after it had threatened the same thing if a resolution wasn't reached. The media narrative has focused on the plight of the passengers, with talk of disruption during a busy period (perhaps deliberately) missing the point of just how a strike works.

The CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce, insists that this has left him with no choice. He says that agreeing to union demands would be "the easy way out," but "that would destroy Qantas in the long term." As such, he is "taking the bold decision, an unbelievable decision, a very hard decision" in order to stop them "trashing our strategy and our brand." This now explicitly pushes the struggle into a war of attrition, and one which Joyce must know that workers cannot hold out on forever - indeed, that after a shutdown the company can survive on the accumulated labour of its employees whilst they will suffer hardship much quicker only underlines the injustice that is wage labour.

Clearly, this situation has no easy resolution, and unfortunately it looks as if it is the workers who will suffer most. As TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon says, "Qantas has always wanted this dispute." The company "trained strike-breakers nine months ago to do the work of TWU members" and are determined in "their ambition to outsource Australian jobs to Asia and detonate the Qantas brand."

The action has split the ruling class, with the government's application "to terminate all industrial action at Qantas" now "aimed at both actions by unions and by Qantas management." This will certainly add to the economic pressure on Joyce to end the lock out.

However, before that pressure yields results he will still be able to do damage to the unions with what is - after all - one of the most explicit examples recently of an employer taking industrial action to destroy the collective power of the workforce. This dispute raises the question of how such tactics can be resisted. Whilst it may be novel and extreme at the moment, there is no guarantee that in a period of heightened class conflict it won't become the norm, and in that situation - especially in austerity-related struggles as are occurring across the world - there needs to be a way out other than defeat.

But in the immediate term what is needed is solidarity, not only in words but in deeds. At the least there should be a serious effort to raise funds for the locked out workers and to help them last that bit longer in this siege. An injury to one is an injury to all, and we never know when other workers may find themselves faced with the same situation.