Many things about the future of Qantas are never going to be decided today, but your holiday bookings on that airline look safe, no matter what.

Today is the last day of a 21-day period of conciliation between the airline and the long-haul pilots, licence engineers and ground-staff unions.

Whether all or none of the unions negotiate mutually acceptable enterprise agreements with Qantas by midnight, strike action is banned. If the disputes aren’t resolved, they will either go back to a further three weeks of conciliation, or be arbitrated by Fair Work Australia, a process that could take months, and whose decisions cannot be appealed.

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The only thing that can be appealed, if any of the unions decide to go down that path, is to actually appeal the original decision of FWA early in the morning of Monday, October 31, to cancel all industrial action by the unions and management after Qantas, on Saturday, October 29, grounded its entire fleet without notice, stranding tens of thousands of passengers in Australia and abroad.

The initiative, which involved the company illegally taking money off thousands of passengers for flights it knew wouldn’t operate, resulted in the federal government convincing FWA that continued industrial action would be harmful to the national economy.

However, the unions argued, unsuccessfully, that FWA should have done what it did in the Victorian nurses dispute, and suspend rather than cancel industrial action it had previously sanctioned, for at least another 90 days, which Qantas opposed on the grounds that it would continue the uncertainty it said had caused a slump in its bookings.

For those for whom the industrial law situation is irrelevant, the risks of strike action by the licensed engineers or ground staff exists, but it would be unprotected industrial action and would leave those union leaderships and their members exposed to severe penalties should the tribunal decide that locking up their members or bankrupting them was the way to deal with matters, which would be the “nuclear option” in its consequences for the airline and its employees, customers and shareholders.

The pilots have categorically ruled out going on strike. There campaign was about having Qantas pilots fly Qantas aircraft, an inclusion in their enterprise agreement claim that was fiercely resisted by management as taking away its flexibility to respond to the challenges of saving the airline from the burden of supporting a loss-making international operation.

So while it appears that everyone’s holiday season Qantas flights look safe, no matter what happens,  the real issues, which are essentially political and economic in nature, remain red hot.

Qantas says its long-haul business is unsustainable, and it proposes to fund its recovery and expansion in part by establishing a minority-owned Malaysian flag or Singaporean flag carrier using small jets to set up a premium carrier with sleeper sets bigger than those in first class in an A380 but flying comparatively short distances.

Of course there is more. Management statements from Qantas make it very clear it sees the current investment in traditional excellence in Qantas flight standards as insupportable, and when it comes to piloting and engineering and also cabin crewing, that rotation of Asia-based labor on the terms and conditions of Asia state labor laws through Australian domestic and international connecting flights is seen as another part of the solution.

It sees the restrictions of the Qantas Sale Act as being avoidable by the use of offshore subsidiaries.  However, that argument, about what sort of a Qantas or Qantas-related product Australia will get, is also an argument about the right of management to take any initiatives it sees as consistent with maximising returns to shareholders, including adopting strategies that its critics argue are fraught with a high risk of failure.

At the ground-staff level, the argument is not about so much about shifting jobs offshore, but replacing Qantas staff with contractors as or when the company sees fit.

These are all issues FWA can’t or won’t determine, other than perhaps make or endorse unenforceable statements of comfort or intent when it comes to “job security”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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