Jetstar management couldn’t believe their luck when the results of a ballot on a new pay deal were released late last month. The company had put the agreement to a vote against the wishes of the union.
Of the 351 workers that voted on the deal, it passed by a mere 51%. The results were said to have been 179 for the deal with 172 against.
Chief executive of the budget airline Gareth Evans gloatingly described the result as an “important win” against the union. But the result was only achieved through blackmail and dirty tactics.
Jetstar ground crew and baggage handlers were in dispute with the company for more than a year. Strike action was organised in December 2019 and then again in February 2020. This caused major disruptions to domestic air travel.
Fearing more frequent and longer strikes, management decided to try their luck and go around the union.
Despite negotiations being stalled, the company put a deal forward that ignored many of the union’s key demands. They combined this arrogant approach with a campaign of blackmail and bullying.
Scare tactics were used to bully people and the company threatened to withhold pay increases owed from March 2019 unless the workers supported management’s offer. An atmosphere of intense pressure was created.
Most significantly, several workers who had participated in the strike action, but who were on temporary contracts, did not have their contracts renewed. This was despite the fact that the jobs clearly existed and needed to be done.
The bosses hoped that if the vote was close, getting rid of even a few pro-union workers would be worth the trouble. In the end that bet came in.
The dodgy deal that was eventually pushed through included 3% annual pay rises but pay was never the workers’ main concern.
Lots of Jetstar staff work as little as 20 hours a week. They desperately want more hours, more job security and more family friendly rostering arrangements. In addition, there are lots of jobs that the company outsources to Swissport who pay even less.
Jetstar resisted calls for staff to be given more hours and more certainty because they see this as a means to keep the workforce in check.
They promote an atmosphere whereby people feel compelled to go above and beyond in a race to secure extra shifts. For many, a couple of extra shifts is the difference between paying their mortgages or not.
The widespread use of temporary contracts also allows the company to easily dismiss anyone who steps out of line, as was the case just before this vote. This fight was just as much about control of the workplace as it was about money.
In this instance, the union should have insisted that all workers who had participated in the industrial action have their contracts renewed.
Not only could that have swung the vote, but it would have strengthened the union’s position and given other workers more confidence to struggle. Any refusal from the company could have been met with more strikes and on the job action.
While it’s positive that workers at Jetstar put up a fight and engaged in strike action for the first time in many years, lots of work will now need to be done to ensure that the bosses do not use this setback to impose a new regime in the workplace, or to target any other union activists.
While another wages campaign might be off the table for a few years, the fight now needs to be centred around building union cohesion on the job and strengthening health and safety structures.
By developing a collective leadership of rank and file activists Jetstar’s ongoing bullying can be resisted, and the union can continue the fight for more hours and job security.
By Anthony Main