October 31st, 2011


The Qantas Affair

Over the weekend, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce informed the media that the Qantas Airline was grounded in response to continual Union action. A move made on a Saturday after a week of Qantas reserving hotel rooms around the world, a day after a shareholder meeting in which Joyce received a two million dollar pay rise, and after the share markets had closed, the shutdown went out, and thousands of people were suddenly stranded.

What I found most interesting about it was the ideological debate that emerged in its wake. Personally, I don't fly Qantas, but that has nothing to do with the brand or otherwise: it's simply that there are cheaper flights out there. However, the announcement that Qantas would be restructuring its business and moving a lot of its employment into Asia, where they would be able to hire cheaper labour, and thus create cheaper flights, didn't do anything for me, either. It meant a lot of people with jobs were going to lose them--and in a time when Qantas was posting profits and boosting Joyce's pay, I felt that it was a fairly unreasonable thing to do to workers. My sympathies, at the end of the day, rested with the Unions, who were trying to ensure that their employees got the best that they could, and not with the management of Qantas, who were ensuring that they got the best that they could for the business and the share holders (though the latter could really be split into two camps there, as well). It seems strange that the two cannot co-exist, but it appeared, at least from a casual glance, that this was not going to happen at Qantas.

What emerged, however, in the media was a huge divide of opinions. A number of people said that Joyce's move--somewhat cynical, I thought, in its timing and his suggestion that the decision was only reached on Saturday--was the right move, and indeed, the only one. The Unions were making unreasonable demands, they said. Qantas was falling apart. Bleeding money. Dead in the water! Fill in your own saying. The opposition blamed the Government, the Union supported Labour, who were backed into a corner by the Qantas move--and who, probably through this morning's announcement will see even more of their support base wane because they didn't come out strongly for the Unions. People said it was brave, that it was what the business needed, what tourism needed, and so on and so forth.

Others, and I thought this other side of the argument was the less represented in the media, said that the Qantas action was reckless and essentially forcing the Government into a corner and blackmailing the country to get their way. Unions pointed out that they had had between six and eight hours stoppage time, and the pilots union pointed out that they had been wearing red ties and making announcements on their plane. The huge disruption that Joyce stated wasn't there, they argued. They had been negotiating in good faith. Seemingly aware of the fact that they knew their power had been stripped away, a lot of the Union leaders looked helpless in interviews, aware that they had just gotten the shaft, and that in the long run, it would be the employees who suffered.

And when you spoke to people, it either seemed that they were for the company, or for the workers, and that their ideologies, their beliefs on what a job should do, were primarily behind their decisions.

It was interesting times, as they say.