Burning Qantas in order to save it?
On Saturday afternoon, without any warning, tens of thousands of international and domestic Qantas passengers had their travel plans turned upside down. In Australia and at international terminals around the world, thousands of shocked, angry, inconvenienced and bewildered passengers were stranded.
Departure gates were filled with expectant travellers who were turned away. Already boarded aircraft were emptied. Some passengers were found accommodation. But on the whole, most passengers were left to fend for themselves, to use their own resourcefulness to find a flight at a premium cost with another airline, a hotel room or a last remaining hire-car.
For some, the once in a lifetime trips from Europe or the United States to Australia were on the brink of collapse. For others, like a young mother unable to return urgently to her young children in another State, the experience was overwhelming, traumatic. The cessation of all Qantas flights didn’t discriminate – it inconvenienced equally the old, the young and the sick as much as anyone else hoping to board a flight.
Qantas aircrew learned mid-flight across the Pacific Ocean to the west coast of the United States that when they landed, they’d be in limbo. Their families in Australia weren’t to know when they’d return home.
That’s the type of disruption and anxiety the flash decision to ground an airline will cause.
When however, the airline is Qantas - one of the few elite carriers with an enviable safety and service record and with genuine icon status with Australians and other air travellers - a decision like this is extremely damaging to a quality brand and its future business.
The decision to ground Qantas without notice was announced on Saturday afternoon by the company’s CEO Alan Joyce and endorsed by its board. This was an old-fashioned lock-out of the workforce – industrial action taken by management.
As a consequence, the matter was forced by the Gillard Government onto Fair Work Australia which, more than a day later, terminated industrial action by both the employer and the unions, and ordered a 21 day negotiating period to conclude an agreement between the parties. If agreement can’t be reached, or a time extension isn't sought, then FWA will impose one.
Already limping from the public relations disaster over his 70 per cent salary increase to around $5 million a year, Alan Joyce was struggling to convince Australians in his weekend media blitz that the company had no choice but this over the top response.
His plan of maximum disruption to achieve an end sounded a lot like “If I have to, I will burn this village in order to save it”. But the actions of Qantas management aren’t some ‘crazy-brave’ impromptu strategy cooked up over brunch on Saturday. This was planned, premeditated. If it were not, shareholders would have every right to worry about the management practices of those they pay millions to each year.
Shareholders and others ought to be asking Qantas executives:
Was this deliberate and confected ‘crisis’ (with all its inconvenience to passengers and the loss to international corporate reputation) the only way to invoke Fair Work Australia?
Was it the only way to end industrial action on both sides?
Was it the only way to put a timetable on reaching an agreement?
The answers of course are, no, no and no.
Qantas could have, under its own initiative, sought the FWA’s involvement under section 424 of the Fair Work Act. With the agreement of other parties to the dispute, Qantas could have made an application to FWA under section 240 of the Act for FWA to deal with the dispute.
That’s right, a quiet application leading to resolution. We could have all been spared this watered-down version of the waterfront dispute manufactured and co-sponsored by Patricks and the Howard Government.
Australians ought to ponder this. Imagine the violent, anti-union reaction that would have followed from media commentators if on Saturday, the unions, not the CEO as in this case, had brought Qantas to a grinding halt.
Notices greeting passengers at Qantas check-in counters since Saturday have advised: “We’re very sorry. Qantas is not flying due to industrial action."
Imagine if the notices had been subject to a ‘truth in marketing’ provision, they’d have read: “Qantas is not flying due to industrial action triggered by the CEO.”
I want to make a few things perfectly clear. First, like most right-minded Australians, I want to see Australian businesses succeed and be profitable. Second, like most Australians, I expect workers employed by Australian companies to be employed under fair pay and conditions and for employers to be honest and frank with employees about company plans to expand or contract operations. Third, I’m generally optimistic about the ability of union leaders and business people to negotiate mutually satisfactory outcomes even when punctuated by industrial action by either side. Fourth, I’m relieved to know in our society there’s an industrial umpire with the power to impose a resolution when the parties haven’t been able to agree on one.
Every industrial dispute has a beginning, middle and end. The dispute between Qantas management and unions representing pilots, engineers, baggage handlers, catering and other staff was always going to follow this pattern.
And there would have been an agreement reached without the CEO’s pyrotechnics.