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Frank Walker
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Stacks/The Law Firm - News Room



It’s impossible to have missed the recent uproar surrounding Qantas. Whether you were a stranded passenger or just a fascinated onlooker, the Qantas/unions dispute is everywhere in the media. But you could be forgiven for not understanding the half of it. After all, it’s gone on for some time.

So what’s it about and what part does the law play in this ongoing saga?

Since mid-2010 Qantas has been involved in disputes with unions; first with the aircraft engineers union, then the pilots union, and finally the transport workers union (eg. baggage handlers). The main issue has been around better pay and job security. A particular concern to the unions is Qantas’ plan to relocate some of its operations to Asia – basically meaning lower costs for the airline, which claims it can’t compete with other carriers flying into Australia.

Under the Fair Work Act, the unions can strike (only union members) as long as their collective agreement has expired and they’re currently negotiating a new one - the case for all three unions. It’s called protected industrial action.

After months of strikes and disruptions for passengers, Qantas made the decision to ground its entire fleet on October 29th and lock-out its employees. In other words, no flights, and workers couldn’t come to work or receive pay.

Enter Fair Work Australia (FWA). Under the Act, FWA can suspend or terminate industrial action if the dispute threatens to damage the economy, or the health or welfare of the population. Clearly access to flights in and out of Australia affects our tourist industry, and therefore our economy. On October 31st FWA terminated the industrial action (all strikes, lock-outs etc. had to cease) and Qantas and the unions were given 21 days to sort it out.

If they can’t by 21st November (or at least make progress), FWA will arbitrate. That means the tribunal hears evidence from both sides and ultimately decides how the issues will be resolved, a decision that’s legally binding. The tribunal would therefore determine the conditions of new collective agreements, including issues like pay and job security, in light of Qantas’ offshore plans.

Given the number of unions involved and the time that’s already been spent in negotiations, arbitration (if it happens) could be a lengthy exercise.

Regardless of outcome, this has become a major political issue – and something of a test case for the striking sections of the Act. Many believe the government rightly intervened in the Qantas case. But does Labour’s Fair Work Australia (which replaced the loathed Work Choices) give workers the protection it claimed it would? Should employers be able to lock out workers with no notice in order to stop ‘protected’ industrial action?

Australia’s industrial relations laws are again under the spotlight.


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