Ewin Hannan, The Australian
Sound far-fetched? Here's Tony Sheldon, the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union who has been talking up the prospect of industrial action by his Qantas members before even lodging the union's claim
"This could certainly be the largest issue confronting the entire trade union movement since the waterfront dispute," Sheldon tells Focus.
Steve Purvinas, who represents the airline's engineers, claims the next phase of negotiations "will most likely be the most important in the history of Qantas".
Barry Jackson, president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, says the dispute is "about jobs and whether there will a recognisable aviation industry based in Australia in the future".
Staring down the aviation unions is Qantas management, led publicly by chief executive Alan Joyce. After announcing a healthy half-year profit last month, he says Qantas is being buffeted by rising fuel prices, a combined $70 million hit from the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi, and soon-to-be-announced losses due to the earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan.
At the centre of the dispute are union demands that Qantas provide guarantees on job security, offshoring and the use of outsourced labour. Their push is being backed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which says the aviation unions' campaign is consistent with its attempt to make insecure work the dominant workplace theme on the political landscape this year.
"Australians should not have to fight for job security and fair pay, yet the airline which proudly flies a national emblem is refusing to afford its workers the respect and fair go this country stands for," ACTU president Ged Kearney says.
"The use of labour hire and outsourcing, offshoring, short-term contracts and casualisation have all been part of Qantas' approach to undermine job security in the pursuit of higher profits."
The pilots union wants the same terms and conditions that apply to Qantas pilots to apply to any Qantas Group flights operated on a code-share basis or that replace a Qantas flight.
The union says the demand is designed to negate the impact of the company setting up subsidiaries that employ pilots on lower wages and conditions in New Zealand and Asia. For instance, the association asserts that through the use of a "sham company" such as Jetconnect, Qantas makes 'red tail' flights across the Tasman, with pilots who are paid in New Zealand dollars, under New Zealand conditions.
Jackson denies the job security clauses represent a union bid to guarantee pilot jobs.
"The job security clauses we are fighting for are an attempt by Qantas pilots, who care deeply for the Qantas brand, to stop the deceptive outsourcing and offshoring by a management team seemingly hell-bent on a race to the bottom on aviation standards," he says. "Our members are not naive to the competitive environment in which Qantas operates. We want the company to continue growing and being profitable and we believe that accepting the terms of our proposed agreement in vital to achieving that."
Purvinas, the federal secretary of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, says his union is seeking guarantees on job security and offshoring, including assurances that Qantas would have the ability to do A380 heavy maintenance in Australia.
The union believes Qantas wants increasingly to outsource work, and is seeking a clause in the new enterprise agreement that says any contract arrangement entered into by Qantas must offer the same or better wages and conditions as contained in the agreement.
"We are demanding protection to prevent our jobs from being undercut by individuals or labour hire groups offering to do the work for less money," he says. "It would be farcical to think we could negotiate our wage rates, lock them into a binding legal contract, our enterprise agreement, only to see Qantas cut another arrangement with another group to sidestep our agreement."
Similarly, the Sheldon-led TWU, whose members include baggage handlers, catering and ramp staff, wants Qantas to agree to so-called "port rates" that compel any contractor to pay wages and conditions as contained in the airline-union agreement.
Sheldon says the use of outside labour had led to higher staff turnover, lower training, and reduced safety and training across the airline's operations. "Employees are indicating they would like to see port rates in place so there is not an underclass of employees at our airports, as well as increased training and screening for all contracted workers," he says.