The besieged national airline is facing another major crisis as 1000 Qantas staff prepare to strike amid failed negotiations over a 12% pay rise that management called unaffordable.
Engineers from Qantas, Jetstar and Network Aviation will vote on the strike action next week with two options on the ballot before them: overtime bans and 12-hour stoppages (with a majority required to make industrial action protected under the law).
The extraordinary development for Qantas comes after enterprise bargaining talks broke down between the airline group and trade union the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA).
ALAEA federal secretary Steve Purvinas said some members hadn’t received a pay rise in four years despite battling through the difficult years of the pandemic, but the airline had “not taken negotiations seriously”.
Get daily business news.
The latest stories, funding information, and expert advice. Free to sign up.
“There have been years of meetings and no progress,” he continued.
But a Qantas Group spokesperson responded that management had been “negotiating in good faith on the agreements” and was disappointed with the “completely unnecessary” outcome.
“Negotiations for Jetstar and Network Aviation’s engineers agreements recommenced in May, so it is completely unreasonable to take this step given we’re still early in the process,” the spokesperson said.
The threat of industrial action comes after Qantas promised a one-off boost payment of $5000 and the promise of 1000 shares currently worth $4500 in August 2023 to satisfy its 19,000-strong workforce amid a tight labour market.
But the cash bonus was slammed as a “bribe” by the unions, as it was dependent upon staff signing an enterprise agreement giving them a 2% pay increase — and only after a two-year wage freeze.
Purvinas says Qantas wanted his members to forgo overdue increases worth $10,000 a year for a one-off $5000 sweetener, saying “this trickery by the Qantas CEO must end”.
“A one-off $5000 payment will not fix the problems created by the current management team.”
The spokesperson argued that a 12% pay rise was unaffordable for the airline group, which was still recovering from border closures grounding fleets of aircraft. And besides, it would be well above wage increases for other employees of the airline, they continued.
“With the industry still recovering from the impact of the pandemic, the last thing it needs is the threat of industrial action,” the spokesperson said.
But Purvinas said the 12% figure workers wanted would reflect a 3% pay rise per annum since 2018, which is the “lower end of the Reserve Bank’s expected wage outcome”.
“The overpaid CEO expects all workers to freeze their wages as the board tucks away bonus and share options for Qantas executives,” Purvinas said.
According to the airline’s annual report, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce was paid $1.98 million in 2020-2021 (up $250,000 from 2020, though significantly down from Joyce’s $10 million salary in 2019), while 8500 Qantas staff were sacked over the course of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, Qantas has contingency plans in place for the strikes, which would take place in late August or early September if employees vote to go ahead, which Purvinas says they likely would.
“They’ve all suffered through COVID-19, particularly with the airline being so woefully mismanaged. When you work under the current conditions you expect to be remunerated fairly,” he said.
“The airline wage freeze offer is insulting to engineers who have borne the brunt of COVID-19 stand downs and redundancies.”
There is Qantas customer chaos raging at the moment — lost luggage, one in 10 flights cancelled in May and even an apology to a traveller whose father’s ashes were lost en route — but Purvinas says workers wouldn’t seek to inflame that situation.
“We won’t need to target holiday periods, Qantas seem to be doing a good enough job of ruining holidays without our assistance,” he said.
But if history is anything to go off, industrial action could see major disruption for both Qantas staff and customers.
In 2011, Qantas engineers, pilots and ground handling staff launched industrial action — Joyce grounded the airlines and locked out workers to break the strike’s deadlock.