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Employment and Migration Blog

The theatre of flying by the seat of your pants

Posted by Stephen Booth on 3 Nov 2011

Fascinating to watch the developments in the Qantas dispute over the recent weeks. We’ve got out of the habit of watching a dispute on this scale, in a critical industry, with the added frisson of uncertainty over the operation of new legislation.

The theatre of a commercial/industrial dispute such as this is something which anyone involved in negotiation or dispute resolution can appreciate. What step to take next, when to take it? How to calibrate it and what message will it send to the other players?  How to play your cards close to your chest, while at the same time managing the audience (in this case via intense media interest)?

Qantas’ decision to up the ante hugely, by locking out the employees and grounding the fleet, seems to me, on the information available via the media this morning, to have been designed to make the dispute so critical that the government and FWA had to step in, but without asking them to do that. While Qantas could have gone to FWA itself to terminate protected industrial action by the unions, it preferred to take hairy-chested industrial action itself, to demonstrate how strong its position is, and the put beyond doubt the critical nature of the dispute, and then have someone else (the Government) take the soothing step of engaging with FWA (and therefore save it from the PR disaster of having to follow through). It is high-level brinkmanship, with an uncertain outcome if FWA has to decide the outcome. Lots of theatre in that, for the unions, the Government, and us. 

There’s theatre too, of course, in the media grabs which come down to “It is all their fault”, with who “they” are depending on who you’re listening to, as if each step was independent and occurring in a vacuum, instead of part of a long history. Lots of detail and rights and wrongs get lost in the spinning process. Some of the news and commentary this morning spoke of the unions being prevented from taking industrial action, whereas that applies to both parties, and was triggered by an employer lock out.

Presumably Qantas expects to get a better, and more efficiently achieved, deal via FWA than by managing an indefinitely ongoing dispute. This too will be fascinating to watch, since FWA hasn’t yet been put in this position under the current Act. Wonder if Bob Hawke will turn up as he did in one of the mining disputes in the 1990s? Not on behalf of the pilots, at least, considering his role in the 1980’s domestic airline pilots dispute. These things go back a long way.

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