Nationalise Qantas!

17 September 2023
Jasmine Duff

If decisions in Australia were made by people with common sense rather than business-loving pro-capitalist sycophants, Qantas would be nationalised. The company has repeatedly made headlines since the beginning of the pandemic for a variety of attacks on its workers and customers.

The latest of these is the decision of Australia’s High Court to uphold a Federal Court ruling that Qantas unlawfully sacked and outsourced the jobs of 1,683 ground crew in November 2020. The workers include baggage handlers, tug drivers and cleaners. Earlier this year, the company announced a $2.5 billion profit.

The official rationale for the outsourcing was that it would add more than $100 million to Qantas’ profits. But more importantly for the airline, it prevented the workers from bargaining collectively for a new workplace agreement. Qantas will now have to pay some compensation but won’t have to reinstate the workers.

“On the day, I’ll never forget it, we’re brought into the lunch room”, former Qantas employee Don Dixon recently told ABC News. “It was just like the axe had fallen on our necks.” The mass sacking showed how disposable workers are in the eyes of Qantas bosses. Many of the workers had spent years with the airline.

“Whether it was pouring down rain, windy, freezing cold winter or 45 degrees on the tarmac, it didn’t matter. We’re out there doing the job”, Dixon said. “On Christmas Day, on Boxing Day, and all the other public holidays, there was a good chance that I wasn’t with my family. I was with my work colleagues.”

It’s the largest sacking in Australian corporate history, according to Transport Workers’ Union Secretary Michael Kaine. While it was gutting its workforce in the pandemic, Qantas received $2.7 billion from the government in corporate welfare, which it has never paid back.

In August, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission began court action against Qantas for allegedly advertising and taking money for tickets for more than 8,000 flights that it had already cancelled or removed from sale between May and July 2022. In some cases, Qantas allegedly kept selling tickets up to 47 days after flights had been cancelled.

Former Qantas CEO Alan Joyce resigned on 5 September, two months earlier than he had planned, as scandals piled up around him. He was paid $80 million in the last ten years. According to ABC News, he received a cash bonus of $4.3 million on top of his base salary of $2.2 million. He will retire obscenely wealthy after selling his home in August for $19 million, though one wonders how he’ll cope without the Mosman mansion’s private jetty, netted sea pool, wine cellar and gym. Joyce has been replaced by Vanessa Hudson, previously Qantas’ chief financial officer.

Qantas needs to be put back in public hands. After the airline was founded privately in 1920, the federal government took ownership following the Second World War. Paul Keating’s Labor government began its privatisation in 1992, along with the sell-off of the Commonwealth Bank. Keating’s years in power, along with those of his predecessor Bob Hawke, unleashed the “profits first, people second” approach to government that has dominated ever since.

The argument put by right-wing pundits to justify privatisation is that it exposes companies to market competition, thereby forcing them to become more efficient. But in reality, it puts workers in a race to the bottom, piling on pressures to attack wages and conditions to lift profits, not improve services.

During the period in which it was government owned, the airline had a fully unionised workforce and some of the best safety standards in the world. Today, the airline has half the ground crew per plane that it did in 1994. There’s been a big shift to part-time and casual roles rather than full-time, secure roles. More than 80 percent of workers who responded to a survey by the Transport Workers’ Union in 2015 said they didn’t earn enough to meet their living costs.

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