Japan: Jetstar crews strike for pay, union rights

January 30, 2024
people with signs, airplane tail
Jestar Japan management has rejected the union’s claims for payment of unpaid overtime wages, among other matters. Image: Green Left

The union representing pilots and cabin crew at budget airline Jetstar Japan began coordinated strike action ahead of Christmas, after a breakdown in collective bargaining negotiations with management.

The Jetstar Crew Association (JCA) commenced industrial action on December 22 and by December 24 Jetstar management was forced to cancel two domestic flights between Narita and Fukuoka.

The strike lasted for a further 10 days and led to significant disruptions of domestic services throughout the Christmas and New Year period.

Management rejects overtime pay claim

Jetstar Japan was founded in 2011 as a multinational joint-venture enterprise between Qantas, Japan Airlines and Tokyo Century Corporation.

JCA was founded in July 2018 and in September 2022 commenced bargaining with Jetstar Japan's management for a new collective agreement. The union’s claims ranged from consultation rights to working hours and salaries.

As bargaining progressed, however, three key issues of contention arose, resulting in negotiations reaching a deadlock. First, management rejected the union’s claims for payment of unpaid overtime wages. Secondly, management refused to reinstate a commuting allowance that was reduced without the consent of the workforce. Thirdly, it refused the union’s claim for space for a union office and union notice board in the workplace.

JCA issued a “right of dispute” against the company in August last year, and announced its intent to take industrial action that month. However, industrial action was postponed after some initial progress was made in negotiations.

Negotiations again reached a deadlock in November and the union announced on November 29 that an overtime ban would be activated from December 1.

The union also announced that strike action would take place over the busy holiday period from December 22 to January 7, if negotiations continued to remain at an impasse.

Strike peaks over Christmas and New Year

Two flights per day were cancelled from December 24‒26. Due to the pressure imposed by the strike, management and the union held crisis talks on December 27, where some limited progress was reached.

Management expressed willingness to pay a reduced, non-taxable commuting allowance — however no details were given regarding the method or timing of the payment. The company also agreed to provide a union office and notice board, however gave no details on the location and size of the office and notice board.

However, the meeting failed to resolve the issue of unpaid overtime, and the airline announced plans to take the matter to the Central Labour Relations Commission for mediation.

JCA committee member Akira Iiokohagi expressed his frustrations with the company’s refusal to pay unpaid overtime, telling the media: “There was no progress at all. We wanted to call off the strike, but it was not possible. We regret the inconvenience this may cause our customers and all related parties, but we ask for your understanding.”

The strike intensified on December 29 when a further 36 JCA members walked off the job, resulting in 17 domestic flights being cancelled, affecting 2600 passengers. A further eight flights were cancelled across four domestic flight routes on December 30, as the strike continued.

The strike peaked on December 31 when 22 flights were cancelled. On New Year’s Day a further 10 flights were cancelled.

A further crisis meeting between the union and management was held on January 1. The meeting again failed to resolve the key issues of unpaid overtime and the size of the allocated union office space.

Despite the bargaining deadlock between management and JCA, the union called off the strike on the afternoon of January 1, after an earthquake hit Ishikawa prefecture. All staff members were required to return to regular duties as of January 2 to cover the extra demand for work caused by the unforeseen natural disaster. Even though the strike ended earlier than planned, the dispute between JCA and management remains ongoing.

Jetstar Japan’s Australian connections

In Australia, Jetstar’s parent company Qantas is infamous for its union-busting tactics. Former Qantas CEO Alan Joyce grounded the entire Qantas domestic fleet on October 29, 2011, as part of an employee lockout during bargaining with three unions.

More than 100 flights were cancelled in 2019, as pilots and ground staff walked off the job at Jetstar Australia, after negotiations between the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the company broke down.

The TWU sought claims on behalf of its members including an annual 4% payrise, 12-hour breaks between shifts, more rest breaks, and a commitment to engage direct employees rather than untrained, outsourced staff.

The dispute was fierce, and in March, 2020 Jetstar management put a substandard enterprise bargaining agreement directly to staff for a vote. The company demanded workers vote for the agreement or miss out on getting backpaid their annual interim wage increase from March 2019.

TWU national secretary Michael Kaine expressed his disappointment with the substandard deal in a media statement on March 2, 2020: "Jetstar acted like a corporate dictator by ramming this disgraceful deal through, using blackmail tactics in threatening to withhold rate increases."

Two years later, in January 2022, Qantas exploited a provision that existed in the Fair Work Act to have the Fair Work Commission terminate an expired agreement covering Qantas cabin crew who are members of the Flight Attendant’s Association of Australia (FAAA).

The end result of such a move would have been to instantly erase decades of hard-won bargaining gains and throw the workers onto the award safety net.

This extreme tactic was essentially used by Qantas to coerce employees to accept a substandard offer or face the prospect of having their pay and conditions reduced to the industry award minimum.

Faced with this threat, workers were left with little choice but to vote up the substandard agreement — which had previously been rejected by 97% of the workforce.

Australia’s High Court unanimously ruled on September 13 last year that Qantas was in breach of the General Protections found in Part 3.1 of the Fair Work Act when it unlawfully dismissed more than 1700 Qantas baggage handlers, cleaners and ground staff and replaced them with outsourced labour.

The workers were members of the TWU. The High Court decision affirmed that Qantas took adverse action against the employees to prevent them from participating in collective bargaining and engaging in protected industrial action in the TWU’s upcoming bargaining round.

[Clive Tillman is an Australian Services Union delegate, lawyer and PhD candidate in labour law at RMIT University.]

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