By Ian McMurtry
Qantas Loses Legal Battle With Union, Chooses to Appeal
As if Qantas’s current situation with closed borders and a slow recovery from the effects of COVID-19 were not enough for management, the airline will now be forced to think about its union members more following a landmark ruling from the airline’s handling of ground staff during the pandemic. The case, determined by Justice Michael Lee, found that Qantas had breached Australian fair rights acts in a decision in early 2021 to lay off 2,000 unionized ground workers in favor of outsourcing.
The issue was presented by the Transport Workers Union of Australia, who argued that Qantas had no legal reason to lay off ground staff and outsource to other firms. Upon review, it was determined my Justice Lee that Qantas was indeed just relying on the haze of COVID-19 and ‘cost cutting’ as a means to reduce union presence in the airline. This move violated Australia’s Fair Work Act, deeming the airline’s move as illegal and gives victory to the union. As a result, both parties were informed that they would negotiate a new deal with the TWU in the near future. The court case gives Qantas the right to pay out a lump sum of money or rehire the lost positions.
Commenting on the result, union secretary Michael Kaine said, “It was not just a reprehensible act, it was an illegal act. There’s not in any sense triumphalism today. There is actually a sense of great regret, that the work that they’ve put into this company for so many years, has been undermined by a management team that has gone rampant. And this judgment is full of references to inappropriate action of Qantas management that has today been found to be illegal. And what we’ll be doing now, of course, is following through on the orders that were applied for in the court, and that is that these workers be reinstated.”
But while the TWU is more than willing to work towards getting workers reassigned back into the Qantas family, the airline is not as accepting to the news. Qantas confirmed that it would dig its heels in and avoid attempting to rehire workers or paying out a lump sum for legal violations, saying that it will instead appeal Federal Court’s decision.
Qantas executive John Gissing fired back, saying, “The TWU has put forward its persecution complex that our decision to save $100 million a year in the middle of a global downturn was really about stopping them from walking off the job at some time in the future. The focus of the TWU’s case was on a few documents that made reference to industrial action while ignoring the hundreds that don’t.
“Any company acting prudently has to consider all operational risks when making a significant decision, but a reference to the risk of industrial action risk does not automatically mean that it’s a reason for the decision. Qantas was motivated only by lawful commercial reasons, and this will be the subject of our appeal,” Gissing continued.
Gissing further elaborates that the union made comments attempting to discredit the airline’s safety with the move by citing a few outsourced ground handling accidents when he notes that unionized errors were doubled that than during outsourcing. He further notes that the recent lockdowns in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane as COVID-19 resurges in Australia prove that the cost restructuring for Qantas is vital to the airline’s ability to stabilize. Qantas has reeled from border closings, as the states of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria see a rising amount of COVID-19 cases in the recent weeks. Furthermore, the closure of the ‘quarantine free’ travel border with New Zealand has further impacted the Australian flag carrier.
Qantas has used Swissport and dnata for ground handling operations in their hubs since the removal of the 2,000 positions earlier this year, with Qantas and low-cost subsidiary Jetstar both making the switch in tandem.