Qantas is in crisis. Delayed and cancelled flights, lost luggage and the axing of 9400 jobs over 2020–21 is behind the airline’s serious decline.
When Qantas was fully government-owned, until 1993, it maintained the best safety record in the world, as well as having a good best track record for being on time.
Its fully unionised workforce meant that workers had secure jobs, reasonable wages and conditions.
CEO Alan Joyce’s aggressive cost-cutting program at the start of the pandemic has been blamed for Qantas’s poor performance. But the roots of the crisis go back to the Paul Keating Labor government’s decision to privatise Qantas in the early 1990s.
Privatisation is mostly promoted as a way of making services more efficient and less expensive by exposing them to competition. However, the real reason is that it provides large and guaranteed profits for corporations.
What could be more attractive than buying an already profitable service with an already guaranteed market?
Joyce was paid $5.5 million in “wages” last year, including $2.2 million in cash pay and $3.3 million in bonus shares. He has made a name for himself confronting unions to cut back workers’ wages and conditions.
As a result, transport industry unions have been waging campaigns for better pay and conditions.
Transport Workers Union (TWU) national secretary Michael Kaine said it should be easier for workers to get job security and pay rises above the “bare minimum”.
“It’s a sad reality that we’re going to continue seeing chaos at airports until we regain the levels of training and experience the industry has lost,” he said on September 8.
“Aviation needs a circuit breaker to rebalance the power from overpaid executives making decisions to line their own pockets, and ensure good, safe and secure jobs are prioritised,” he said, calling for a “Safe and Secure Skies Commission”.
Joyce grounded Qantas’ entire fleet in 2011 after the Australian and International Pilots Association, the Australian Licenced Aircraft Engineers Association and the TWU took industrial action.
He launched an aggressive cost-cutting program at the start of the pandemic, even while receiving $2 billion in public funding for wage subsidies in 2020, as well as other financial support and fee waivers.
Re-nationalising Qantas must become one of the union’s key demands. Queensland Greens MP Elizabeth Watson-Brown said on September 6 that rather than propping up failing private businesses, the Labor government should “re-open the question of public ownership of Qantas, because the current model is clearly dysfunctional”.
Putting Qantas back into public hands could be the first step in the development of an integrated public transport system, linked to a massive expansion of the national railway network.
For a re-nationalised airline to work well, it would have to governed by an accountable board of workers. It would also need to be part of an environmentally sustainable, national public transport system with a fully unionised workforce. This would be the only way to reduce carbon pollution in a climate-challenged world.