Pilots dispute: Armed forces, civil action…


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The pilots dispute is the most important since the Hawke government came to power in 1983. The government’s main strategy has been to make the workers pay for the capitalist crisis through the wage-cutting Accord. A victory for the pilots could mean the end of the Accord and open up a wave of industrial militancy amongst the rest of the working class.

For the first time ever, Hawke has supported common law action against a union. For the first time ever, Hawke has sanctioned the use of the military against a trade union in dispute. As we go to press, it seems only a matter of time before the government and/or tourist industry bosses take out court action against the pilots and their union, the Australian Federation of Airline Pilots (AFAP).

Despite the opposition of most union leaders, if standdowns occur, if pilots are fined or jailed, the strike could spread to all airline workers, the tourist industry and beyond. It is too dangerous a precedent for the pilots to be allowed to be defeated. If one cent of AFAP money is touched by the courts or if one pilots is jailed, an immediate 24-hour general strike must be organised.

All workers are watching with interest as events unfold. To many, the pilots pay claim of 30% may seem enormous whilst the vast majority of workers in ACTU-affiliated unions are only getting 6% through the latest wages deal.

But workers have lost over 20% in real wages through the Accord – all at a time of economic upturn and massive profits. The pilots claim is an amount that many workers believe their union also should be fighting for. That is why the union leaders fear and oppose the pilots claim. It undercuts and exposes their 6% wage ‘victory’ at a time of 7% inflation!

Australian Airlines declared a $140 million profit for January-June. Now they cry poverty, and Hawke calls the pilots “greedy”. The tourist industry and airline companies want to make workers pay for a downturn in a post-bicentennial tourist slump. The pilots originally were working 9-to-5 to win their claim. But in a clearly aggressive move, the airline companies refused to negotiate and stopped all flights. So in reality, the pilots were locked out!

Its one law for the workers and another for the bosses. Executive salaries rose 50% last year and the renumeration tribunal recommended an 80% rise for judges! MPs will soon be receiving a 30% wage rise – voted for by themselves! Hawke and some Labor backbenchers think it should be delayed at least until the pilot’s dispute is over – there are no prizes for guessing why!

Hawke realises that if the pilots win even 0.01% more than the 6% rise the ACTU ‘won’ for its three million members, it will give workers the confidence to demand a decent wage rise. Such a wages breakout would smash the incredibly fragile wages system that has bonded the government, the ACTU and big business together for six years.

A victory for the pilots would change the whole industrial climate and force the Labor and union wage-cutters on the defensive. This explains Hawke’s mad-dog language, threatening “war on the pilots”, using the air force to scab, allowing international airlines to operate domestic routes (leading to scabbing by the ‘communist’ airlines of Poland and Yugoslavia) and encouraging the use of civil action against pilots.

Hawke wants to bankroll the airline companies to the tune of $6 million in taxpayer’s money to help last out the strike. The ACTU wants Hawke to subsidise the companies in order to put off any standdowns of other airline workers. Such standdowns could lead to the unthinkable – the ACTU being forced to support workers in struggle! The pilots would no longer be alone.

Without the generous use of taxpayers’ money, the pilots would have probably won already as the airline companies are reported to be losing about $60 million a day.

The Department of Social Security has been told to block dole payments to pilots, even though they are not technically on strike but have resigned!

Before the dispute, ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty told Hawke, “stiffen the backbone of your good mate Sir Peter Ables because in some disputes the private employers can be the weakest link”. This is what Hawke has done despite the fact that Ables has just tried to buy into the airlines of the Chilean dictatorship! Kelty’s quote also exposes himself as being a strategist of the bosses rather than a workers’ leader.

The government’s actions have now set a dangerous precedent for future Liberal administrations to follow. Military scabbing, civil action etc could be used against wharfies, nurses, building workers etc.

But despite all that is waged against them, the pilots can still win. They have prepared well with mass meetings, saving money and getting part time jobs. Their morale is a s strong as ever. They have won support from air traffic controllers. The Transport Workers Union have banned the refuelling of scabbing air force jets, forcing these jets to refuel at air force bases.

The US pilot’s union have refused to scab. Despite all the chartering of overseas planes and the lifting of restrictions on international carriers operating internally, only 30% at most of normal air traffic is operating. And of course, not many CES (now Centrelink) offices have jet pilots on their books ready to scab!

The pilots have resigned in a tactical move to make it difficult for the employers or tourist industry to sue. But it is unlikely this will stop the use of civil action against the pilots of the AFAP as they can still sue for damages for the period prior to the resignations.

The airline companies are now talking of a 30% cut in pilot numbers and increased productivity (ie pilots working longer hours) after the dispute. Resignation might make it easier for the employers to make a 30% job cut seem like a 70% job increase. Also, militant pilots could be more easily kept out of the industry when the inevitable reemployment of staff commences after the dispute.

Nevertheless, the overall situation still makes a pilot’s victory very possible. Pilots should visit workplaces – especially those that can help with black bans – and explain their case. A victory for the pilots would make it easier for all workers to win decent wage rises. A defeat for the pilots would make the use of the military and civil action against other striking workers all the more likely.

Those union leaders who oppose the 30% claim as “greedy” must be told: “if you spent as much energy attacking the greedy bosses (who have not used the high profits from our wage cuts to boost investment) then the economy and our wages would be in a better state!”

*No to military involvement in industrial disputes
*No to anti-union legislation or use of civil action against striking workers
*Support pilots, an injury to one is an injury to all, a victory to one is a victory to all!

By Militant reporters

Originally published in the September 1989 edition of Militant, predecessor of The Socialist

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