Workers from the airline Jetstar have taken strike action over the past few weeks. The Socialist spoke to a rank and file member of the Transport Workers Union about the dispute.
The Socialist: Jetstar baggage handlers and ground staff are campaigning for a new collective agreement. How many people work for the company doing those jobs?
Jetstar worker: Around Australia it’s about 250 people. At a lot of airports Jetstar contracts to companies like Swissport/Aerocare for ground handling. They use labour hire companies to bring in casual staff as baggage handlers. Only at Melbourne, Avalon, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Cairns are we employed by Jetstar directly.
The Socialist: The union has put a log of claims to the company and has started negotiations, what exactly are the workers demanding?
Jetstar worker: The pay claim is for 4% a year and a 1% increase to super. Under the last agreement we were put under pressure to accept a pay freeze. These claims would actually only make up some of the ground we have lost.
The important thing to me is improved conditions. Working conditions have really worsened recently. Rostering is an absolute joke. You can work a shift starting at 4am one day and night shift the next, only to go back to mornings after a two-day break. It’s really difficult, especially for those people with families.
One of our claims is for a minimum 12-hour break between shifts. At the moment it is only 10 hours. We also want a change of shift allowance so that the company will either address the rostering problem or at least compensate us.
The union also put forward a claim for a minimum 30-hour week for part-timers, which is at least half the staff. We’re also demanding a new pay classification for supervisors because Jetstar has steadily increased their responsibilities while keeping pay the same.
The last important claim for me is the scraping of tiered pay rates. As it stands you are paid by classification but also by length of employment. Newer staff are paid less for doing the same work. Jetstar use this to cut costs.
The Socialist: There seem to be a number of issues related to safety and insecure work. You’d think that a big company like Jetstar could easily afford to meet those modest demands.
Jetstar worker: Jetstar made billions in profits last year. They even make a big deal about it in the workplace. They have a TV screen in our staff room where they run a loop of company performance stats. For weeks it had stuff about their record profits and how well the company was going.
A couple of months later our union delegates went to meet the bosses about getting a new agreement and the managers cried poor claiming that they couldn’t afford a wage increase or improve our conditions.
It’s all bullshit obviously, they could easily afford it. Their record profits are made on the back of our hard work and underpaid wages.
The Socialist: The company looks like it’s digging it’s heels in, is there a plan to ramp up the pressure?
Jetstar worker: Yeah, they certainly are. Jetstar are part of Qantas, which under Alan Joyce has developed a bit of a reputation for trying to intimidate unions. Back in 2011 Qantas ground crew went on strike, and the company’s response was to ground the whole fleet for days.
We are expecting Jetstar to play hard at some point but at the moment they are just stalling. The bargaining period started in March 2019 and Jetstar still haven’t said what they want. Over the summer period they’ve been refusing to meet the union altogether.
The work stoppages in the led up to Christmas were intended to bring Jetstar back to the negotiating table. But they weren’t long enough, in total, over two days, a week apart, we stopped working for only 6 hours. While those few hours did cause huge disruptions, I think we should have walked out for a couple of days.
The Socialist: It seems like the sites are well unionised. What’s the mood amongst the workers?
Jetstar worker: The mood is good. The recent actions were the first time in many years that any ground crew in Australia has been on strike. People were really proud of the action they took and are keen to walk out again.
In Sydney the workplace is close to 100% union. In Melbourne it’s about 85%. When I started at Jetstar lots of people weren’t interested in joining the union but once we started talking about taking action people started signing up.
After the union announced plans to go on strike, I managed to sign up six new members. The news that we were going to take action really enthused people, I think that’s a lesson that most union leaders could really learn from in a time when the movement is generally losing members.
The Socialist: Where do you think the campaign should go from here?
Jetstar worker: I think we need to build upon the stop-work action we’ve already taken. The campaign should move towards regular walkouts and for longer periods, 2-hour work stoppages won’t cut it.
We should be considering at least 24 hour strikes over weekends, and we should be working to rule. Jetstar relies on us bending standard operating procedures, airport speed limits and using equipment that shouldn’t be in service to complete aircraft turnarounds in time.
We’re under pressure to do it every day. But if we slowed down and did things properly it would cause them big problems.
I think we also need to start preparing for the company to retaliate. We know what they are capable of but they can be countered if we receive solidarity from the broader trade union movement.