- by Marcus Browning
- The Guardian
- Issue #2071
In an important win for union members, the High Court of Australia last week ruled that Qantas’ sacking of 1700 ground and baggage workers was illegal. The case was brought by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) in a long legal battle in which two Federal Court rulings found that Qantas’ outsourcing of jobs during the pandemic breached the Fair Work Act, and was motivated by a desire to avoid enterprise bargaining and protected industrial action.
Since the airline’s mass sacking of workers, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission reported that complaints about Qantas and their services soared by 68 per cent in 2022.
Despite pocketing $2.7 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies during the pandemic and recording pre-tax profits of $2.5 billion in the last financial year, Qantas aggressively fought to not reinstate the workers, claiming they would sack them again.
Qantas has been the poster child of exploiting loopholes to outsource jobs and suppress the wages and conditions of its workers; it has laid the scene for the coming storm in which the major employers intend to smash campaigns for wages and other gains by organised labour.
The ACTU welcomed the High Court judgement and congratulated the TWU for standing up for its members.
“Today is a huge victory for the workers,” said ACTU Secretary Sally McManus. “The court of public opinion had already delivered their judgement on Qantas’ disrespect to their customers and their workforce. Now the High Court of Australia has confirmed that Qantas illegally sacked 1700 workers, doing untold damage to them and their families.”
It is some justice for the 1700 Qantas workers’ families whose union stood with them through thick and thin. Being in a union meant they had the resources to take on Qantas.
“Qantas has created and used every loophole to exploit the system,” said McManus. “Whilst this is one victory, this behaviour will not be stopped unless the Parliament passes the Closing Loopholes Bill. This Bill gives workers greater job security and stops companies like Qantas from gaming the system.”
Qantas received a huge amount of public financial support during the pandemic, and in return stripped rights and wages from employees and hollowed out services to maximise profits and executive bonuses.
Under Alan Joyce, Qantas became an industry leader in using the system to fill executive pockets with public money. This is a company that took $856 million in JobKeeper during the pandemic, but has continued to cut pay, jobs, and services.
In 2020 Qantas workers, including those battling cancer and heart disease, were blocked from accessing accrued sick leave after a Federal Court ruling.
The ruling barred workers from accessing sick leave after Qantas stood them down at the beginning of the pandemic. Some workers were forced to accept redundancies during this period in order to pay medical bills.
Qantas had previously been found to have misused and underpaid the JobKeeper wage subsidy while at the same time attempting to outsource all baggage handling, ramp workers, and cleaning jobs.
At the time, Alan Joyce was the highest paid CEO in Australia, and the highest paid airline executive anywhere in the world.
The workers were doubly disadvantaged, being stood down and also unable to pursue work elsewhere due to illness: forced take a redundancy to cover medical bills, and during a pandemic.
Qantas attacked its workforce at every turn during the pandemic crisis.
UNITY IN STRUGGLE
This dispute – and its forerunners such as the wharfies and their union the MUA in the 1998 battle for the waterfront – demonstrates the need for unity in struggle; workers would not be able to organise trade unions and win strikes without it.
There are growing numbers of casual, temporary, and part-time workers.
There are growing numbers of permanently unemployed workers.
The great majority of those who are working live in a state of daily dread that the company they work for will make a cold-blooded decision to downsize their jobs, and with it their homes and their future.
With unity in struggle the labour and people’s movements can win.
Trade unions and the workers’ movement are based on the common collective and community interests of all workers. It was the realisation of these common interests that brought trade unions into existence in the first place.
Before that, individual workers were pitted against one another. There was a master-servant relationship between worker and employer. Every worker was alone and this was a very unequal contest.
Historically, before trade unions came into existence there had been collective actions by people to throw off oppression – the slave revolts of ancient Rome and the peasant uprisings of Britain, Germany, China, and many other countries.
It was inevitable, as the new working class came into existence with the emergence of capitalism, that workers would also band together. This gave the working people much more strength in the struggle for their common interests against their employers.
Employers have always regarded the act of workers coming together with fear and as a crime. There were bitter struggles in the 19th century as workers tried to form trade unions. But inevitably the demand for joint action in support of commonly held interests triumphed.
The Qantas offensive is a glimpse of the anti-worker state – the laws of governments, the courts to enforce the laws, the police to protect the employer interests, and when even this fails, the army is moved in. Let it be recalled that the army has been used in Australia – by a Labor governments during the miners’ strike in 1949, and later in the airlines dispute in 1989.
Employers want to return to the days when there were no unions to challenge the power and interests of capital. The way to do this is to exclude unions and eliminate any form of collective action.
Employers are even prepared to pay a price by offering a higher wage to some, provided the worker resigns from his/her union. Initially it might be higher wages for those who sign up, while others lose their jobs. Individual contracts leave workers on their own with no one to defend them as wages are later reduced, hours of work extended, holidays cancelled, health and safety measures abandoned.
The collective power of workers united is always a threat to the interests of capital. Capitalists know that their profits come from the exploitation of the labour of workers. The more they can reduce the wages and other provisions going to workers, the higher their profits.