Qantas announced plans to slash 5000 jobs during March in a ruthless offensive aimed at clawing back $2 billion over the next three years. This is an attempt to make workers pay for the losses management have overseen since 2011. Job losses and reduced conditions are not inevitable, however the pro-Labor trade union leaders aren’t offering the kind of leadership that is necessary to defeat this offensive.
By Kirk Leonard, Socialist Party
In simple terms airline workers globally have been bullied into paying for the effects of the capitalist crisis in the aviation industry. Massive job losses have been inflicted alongside reduced conditions that took decades of trade union struggle to win. Hundreds of airlines have closed down since 2008. Tens of thousands of airline jobs were destroyed in Europe recently, while workers in Asia have been forced into unpaid leave lasting up to five years. Michael Moore’s famous documentary ‘Capitalism: A love story’ reported the plight of pilots in the US surviving on food stamps.
Financial problems at Qantas come in this context of merciless competition for markets and a feverish race for the lowest possible wages bill between massive international airlines. Qantas, battling against better resourced competitors paying their workers less, made a loss of $252 million in the last half year, after a tiny $5 million profit in 2012-13 and a loss of $245 million in 2011-12.
Tony Abbott’s coalition government wants to change the ‘Qantas Sale Act’ to remove restrictions on foreign ownership. The result would be international banks, hedge funds and airlines buying out Qantas to carve it up, absorb its most profitable parts and cast the rest onto the scrap heap destroying and off-shoring jobs in the process. Fundamentally what Abbott is advocating is simply opening the most direct route for ‘market forces’ to achieve what they are already pursuing by means of competition.
Despite their posturing, Labor’s support for a government debt guarantee is not a strategy to defend jobs or conditions either. Giving Qantas management access to more money will only provide them with a war chest to buy time for manoeuvring in their onslaught against jobs and conditions. Labor’s strategy of handing billions of taxpayer dollars to the car industry bosses over decades simply drew out the process of shutdown while terrorizing workers into submission with the idea that ‘there is no alternative’.
Gillard’s Labor government banned industrial action by unions after management locked out workers and grounded the fleet in 2011. Bob Hawke’s Labor government used the air force to break the pilots union during their 1989 strike and then Keating’s Labor government went on to privatise Qantas in 1993. Labor is no friend of airline workers, rather they have sided with big-business interests in aviation for decades.
Union leaders pleading for ‘consultation’ about which jobs and conditions are cut reflect the Labor Party’s view that Qantas can only be run as a privatised for-profit business. At root the problem facing Qantas workers is not simply poor management or a lack of consultation, but the fact that the number one priority for those in control of the airline industry is private profit.
The only way to cut across the race to the bottom in the aviation industry is to remove the profit motive. Bringing Qantas back into public ownership as a vital public service, run democratically and managed by representatives of workers, passengers and the general public is the alternative to leaving it in the hands of the profiteers.
We need a union movement that fights for these types of socialist solutions. A trade union strategy based on a socialist outlook is the best way to defend the jobs and conditions of those in the aviations sector and more widely.