Remember the movie “Groundhog Day?” Well, Qantas is starring in the current airline version with Air Canada in the supporting cast. The basic plotline has unions pretending to know how to run companies while portraying management teams as the dastardly villains whose only aim is to run carriers into the ground, milk their pay and destroy organized labor.
If you’re thinking you’ve seen this one before, that’s because you have. Outside of Hollywood, there is no better industry at recycling the same old material than U.S. airlines and their workers. Like any movie fan, I love a good sequel, but the all-knowing unions versus incompetent management is the same story run more times than a 1950s B Western.
Still, the version from Down Under is quite possibly the most intriguing adaptation in recent years. At the crux of the Qantas story is CEO Alan Joyce. During the past several months, Joyce has faced numerous intermittent strikes by employees; received alleged death threats as he seeks to change the course of Qantas; threw his hands up, shut down the airline and locked out employees for a weekend (the same weekend the Australian government was hosting a major conference); took a lashing for doing so from the Prime Minister and other Australian lawmakers; and, in a move reminiscent of U.S. airline stories, tried to explain the business to a dysfunctional government lacking a complete understanding of air transportation.
Joyce recognizes very clearly that Qantas must change, otherwise the Flying Kangaroo will land in a gravesite alongside Pan Am and TWA and not on a runway in Sydney. Joyce wants/needs to establish a low-cost presence in Asia. It already has a low-cost alternative called JetStar in Australia.
Qantas is a geographically disadvantaged airline – its home market is an end point on the global airline map. Airlines in the Middle East have targeted Qantas’ traffic base using their geographic advantage to route traffic to points in Europe, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Because of their lower costs, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar can offer much lower fares. Singapore, Malaysia and Air Asia can do the same thing for the same reasons. Imagine what will happen if (or when) the Chinese carriers become formidable competitors.
The union response? Rolling, intermittent strikes by the Transport Workers Union, the Australian Licensed Engineers Union and the Australian and International Pilots Union. This destructive industrial action forced Qantas to cancel more than 600 flights affecting 70,000 passengers, creating uncertainty for businesses and damaging the tourism industry.
I know some regular readers will say I’m once again bashing unions and sticking-up for management, but that isn’t the case. I think labor has some legitimate beefs with Qantas, but the reaction by the unions simply isn’t rational. When an airline is struggling, you don’t plunge it further into economic turmoil, especially when the heart of the dispute is job security. All the Australian unions have to do is look at past versions of this story to see how that works out. It just makes no sense.
What makes this round of bargaining different than past rounds in the U.S. is there are major, structural claims that management cannot accept without putting the enterprise at risk. It is one of the reasons I write so often about scope.
Joyce very eloquently outlined Qantas’ position: “No responsible company would let a small number of unions dictate how the business is run. What the unions are actually trying to do is secure a veto on change. They demand the retention of outdated work practices that do not reflect the realities of modern aviation. They want Jetstar pilots to be paid at the same rates as Qantas pilots, a move that would drive up ticket prices for leisure travellers. These are major, structural claims that we cannot accept.”
I applaud Joyce for standing up and saying enough is enough. Some very smart people have said Joyce’s major error was not informing the government of his intended actions, thus embarrassing the current administration. Truth is, whatever decision Joyce made to combat the union’s actions, he was damned. If he did nothing, he was left in charge of an airline that had no idea if it could deliver service to customers because the unions could strike at any time. He was damned if he shut the airline down, inconveniencing those same customers as well as humiliating the government. And if he gave the unions even half of what they wanted, he’d forever be known as the man who doomed Australia’s national airline.
Like it or not, decisions made in management suites and board rooms are all about preserving the enterprise - - even if it means making unpopular choices. That’s what makes the airline business different today than in the past. The irony is both management and the unions really want the same thing; to keep the airline a viable enterprise into the future, thus securing jobs. It’s about building the best job protector that can be built – a healthy company.
That’s why so many U.S. aviation workers really should be tuning in to what’s happening at Qantas and, to a lesser extent, at Air Canada. Pilots and flight attendants at United/Continental, the pilots and all other groups in negotiations at American as well as the pilots and flight attendants at US Airways don’t have to produce their version of “Groundhog Day.” They can recognize reality and start a new script that guarantees good paying jobs for their members and helps keep their respective airlines competitive. Think of it as an adaptation of the UAW play.
To be stuck in the same place, with the same unproductive mindset and doing the same things over and over isn’t going to be any more effective in the Qantas story – or any other version – than we’ve seen in the past.
Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day” has a telling line I don’t want to see as airline unions’ epitaph. After trying to break the repetitive cycle he’s stuck in, Murray’s Phil Connors says, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.” If management and unions don’t change the script soon, that’s exactly what will happen.