SYDNEY — AN Australian pilots' strike - a bid to secure a 30 percent pay hike - threatens to undermine the government's fight against inflation. There has been chaos at major airports since the strike began last week. Thousands of travelers have been stranded. About half of all daily flights are grounded.
Prime Minister Bob Hawke says he's preparing for ``war'' with the union, including shutting down the nation's air transport system for several weeks.
The government agreed to a 6 percent national wage increase with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), which represents most of Australia's labor unions. If the pilots secure more, other unions say they will strike for higher wages, too.
Hawke's tough stance is being backed by the Labor Party's political power base, the ACTU. ``The trade unions won't now, haven't in the past, and won't in the future support individual maverick unions that seek to go outside the wages system,'' ACTU president Simon Cream said.
The pilots' support was further eroded Monday when they lost the legal protection of the Industrial Relations Commission, a body which arbitrates grievances between unions and employers. The commission ruled that by violating the terms of their union contracts, the pilots were outside its protection.
The airlines are now free to determine pilots' working conditions, pay, vacation time, and whether to fire them.
If necessary, Hawke has promised to use military pilots and possibly to reroute flights of the government-owned international airline, Qantas. But a spokesman for Qantas pilots says, ``We will not be used as strike breakers.''
The Australian Federation of Air Pilots says it is prepared for a long strike. It argues that their jobs are comparable to those of politicians, judges, and business executives, whose salaries are not constrained by national wage guidelines and have risen sharply. The ACTU has been critical of this double standard, too.
But the argument is winning the pilots little public support.
Australian airline pilots' salaries start at $32,000 and senior pilots make $99,000. The average salary is $60,000. The pilots are looking for increases on the order of $9,000 to $30,000. The average Australian worker earns about $20,000 per year.
The strike comes on the heels of six months of intermittent airport shutdowns by Australian air-traffic controllers seeking better pay. Tourism this year topped wool as Australian's biggest foreign-exchange earner. But the disruptions are jeopardizing the industry outlook.