Jesus motherloving Christ. If Alan Joyce is making a late bid for Twat of the Year 2011, then he’s eating daylight on his competitors. On Saturday the Qantas CEO shut down worldwide operations of one of the planet’s biggest airlines, in an over-reaction that made King Lear look pretty chill.
Like one of those seasoned chooks you get all ready for roasting, some things come pre-satirised. On Friday, Joyce asked shareholders at Qantas’ annual general meeting to give him a pay rise of 71 percent, from under $3 million a year to about $5 million. They did. The next day, he shut down their company entirely, because of the “extreme demands” of workers. First prize, Alan. Believe.
Where unions have to give 72 hours notice of any action, Joyce gave zero hours. He stranded 68,000 people worldwide, upended the plans of tens of thousands more, and lost an unquantifiable number of future bookings.
And why? To force an advantage in an industrial dispute that was nowhere near crisis point. To stand on a milk crate in a pissing contest. And he got just the elevation he was after. An emergency sitting of the Fair Work Australia tribunal handed down its orders at about 2.30 this morning, terminating all Qantas industrial action – both the grounding and any strikes by unions. This was just what Qantas counsel had campaigned for from minute one of the hearing.
Planes could be up as early as this afternoon. But the scope of cancellations to date has already seen foreign leaders miss connections home from CHOGM. It will leave a huge dent in the Spring Racing Carnival, one of Victoria’s biggest weeks for tourism. 300 remote area doctors were stuck in Alice Springs with no way to reach their patients. And it happened to be smack bang in the middle of what is for many people a five-day weekend.
From all appearances, Joyce timed it to cause as much damage and disruption as possible. He gave no warning deliberately. He knew the chaos his airline could cause, and how much pressure it would place on the government. “Qantas apologise for any inconvenience caused” should be met with a hiss. The amount of inconvenience caused has been carefully maximised.
Imagine for a second that unions had shut down the airline without a minute’s forewarning. There would be calls for them to be criminally liable. For them to be disbanded. The Opposition would be tearing into the government tooth and claw.
Joyce wants to blame unions regardless, but it won’t save his reputation, nor that of Qantas. In his media blitz yesterday, as repercussions manifested in the form of stressed, worn, and teary passengers, Joyce was standing among the wreckage of the company he’s supposed to run, congratulating himself on his “bold decision”. Here was a man who wanted to get rid of the possums in his roof, so called in a napalm strike.
The reek of ego, rutting in the streets and smearing its musk on mailboxes, is the inescapable odour wafting through Melbourne’s streets in these quiet hours before dawn. From his comments on Sunday, Joyce was tired of negotiating. Manufacturing a crisis gave him a chance to skip it. He clearly believes the FWA intervention will get his preferred result.
Qantas and the three unions in question now have three weeks to reach agreement before having one imposed on them by FWA. But with Joyce’s muscle-flex having demonstrated just how firmly he can twist the national arm behind its back, the odds for something favouring Qantas management look good.
But the most offensive thing isn’t disruption. These things happen, sometimes for the best of reasons. For mine, the offensive thing is Joyce’s level of spin. Yes, a part of Spring Carnival is the unmistakable tang of horseshit in the air. It’s just not usually contingent on a Qantas CEO opening his mouth.
For starters, Joyce lumps all three unions together: those of the engineers (ALAEA), the baggage handlers (TWU), and the long-haul pilots (AIPA). He tries to claim they have forced this decision, with rolling strikes in recent months costing $68 million, and an unsustainable wage demand.
Yet the pilots’ association has made no pay claim, nor taken any strike action. Their campaign, completely separate to those of the other unions, is about insisting that Qantas-trained pilots are used to fly Qantas-branded planes, rather than using cheaper offshore replacements.
In AIPA’s first industrial action in 44 years, the extent of the campaign has been to wear red ties bearing a slogan, and to mention the campaign in their pre-flight announcements. They haven’t delayed a single flight to date.
As for the rest of the strike, the TWU has recorded just six hours of industrial action in the past eight months. And according to the Daily Telegraph, a full month of industrial action by engineers in September still saw Qantas cancel fewer flights than the unaffected Jetstar.
I interviewed a Qantas domestic pilot on Saturday evening, who unsurprisingly asked not to be named. He claims limited industrial action can even suit management. “It gives the airline a chance to cancel whichever flights they want. Airlines cancel flights all the time for various reasons, like if a flight’s not full enough. It gives them a nice excuse to hand out to the public.”
No wonder everyone was blindsided. Action was still relatively minor. Qantas had not even suggested government mediation, the logical step when negotiations aren’t going well. It appears that Joyce decided it was beneath him to participate.
And where his magical $68 million loss comes from is as mysterious as Joyce’s other accounting. According to Joyce yesterday, his pay rise wasn’t really a pay rise. According to Joyce a few months back, 1000 Qantas jobs would be lost offshore. According to Joyce this weekend, that number was zero. As my pilot interviewee said, “He’s a mathematician, but he hasn’t done anything to show that he has the qualifications.”
Of course, it’s the offshore threat that is the sticking point in negotiations, with unions wanting some guarantee this won’t happen. Joyce’s plans are for exactly that to happen.
You can see the model with Qantas’ New Zealand routes: planes with Qantas flight numbers, Qantas paintwork, and Qantas uniforms, but staffed entirely by New Zealanders employed by a Qantas front called Jetconnect. The difference? Staff cost 40 percent less, receiving NZ dollars on an NZ pay scale.
You can extrapolate, then, what Joyce’s plans for a large Qantas subsidiary based in Asia would mean. If you think the exchange rate is good in Auckland, try Kuala Lumpur. Try Bangkok. Jetstar, which Joyce used to run, is already using Thai crew, who cost a couple of hundred bucks a month. An Australian would earn that in a day.
No wonder they quietly withdrew that John Travolta safety video. “There’s no-one I’d rather have at the controls than a Qantas pilot,” said the man who played Vincent Vega. Union scum.
In grounding the fleet with no warning, Joyce and his board showed utter disregard for their employees, their shareholders, and their public. Even a couple of days’ notice would have ameliorated the consequences.
Truly remarkable, isn’t it, that it didn’t occur to Joyce to mention the prospect at the AGM. As the Financial Review’s Marcus Priest wrote, “There will be some interesting questions of corporate disclosure and directors’ duties to be explored in any subsequent legal proceedings.”
But this is where his other great dance begins: regarding premeditation. Joyce claims that he and the board only decided on the lockout scheme on Saturday morning. It was in effect by 5 pm. Mate, it takes me longer than that to organise knock-off drinks.
Pilot union vice-president Richard Woodward says Qantas were booking thousands of hotel rooms days or even weeks ago to accommodate stranded passengers. At Saturday night’s initial FWA hearing, counsel for the APIA and the TWU requested documents which showed the pre-existence of plans. Qantas, surprisingly, opposed the move. Nothing to hide…
Counsel for Qantas Frank Parry also complained that in potentially being ordered to continue negotiations, “Qantas has been dragged in here at short notice and been presented with an untenable alternative”.
Barman, I’ll have a Bullshitski. You want short notice, talk to the people whose planes were recalled as they were taxiing to the runway. Ask the woman rushing to see her father before he died. The only party with any notice was Qantas – as much notice as they liked, since it was up to them to pick the date.
The denials, in the end, are impossibly juvenile. We’ve got a kid arm-deep in the cookie jar while querying the existence of baked goods. This is the way of Joyce’s regime. Just listen to his Inside Business interview with Alan Kohler – every single answer starts with a refutation. Everything is justified. Poor brave Alan made the difficult decision. That’s why they pay him the big bucks. And if you want a culprit, those bloody unions are to blame.
Of course, those of a certain view will always find a way to blame unions. The unions faked the moon landings. The unions gave me herpes. Union dingoes took my baby. The unions are the reason why my kids hate me and my wife never quite looks me in the eye anymore.
It’s all their fault. Oh, and sorry, for punching you in the face repeatedly, but I couldn’t solve the crossword this morning, so, take it up with The Times.
Even the great Americain, dropping a few horse-apples as he heads out to early trackwork this morning, can’t match the size of these Joycean steamers. A company which has not even asked for arbitration can’t suddenly claim last resort. A guy who initiates crisis can’t deflect responsibility.
“They are trashing our strategy and our brand. They must decide just how badly they want to hurt Qantas, their members… and the travelling public.” Said the man who shut down the airline. Said the man who fisted every customer for his own tactical advantage. Said the man who made headlines in papers round the world for the worst possible reason.
See? The bloke must have a beef with workers. He’s trying to put satirists out of a job as well.
This piece was originally published on The Punch.