Qantas flies, but Australian airline-union dispute lingers

The Qantas Koala bear is breathing a bit more easily following the recent end of the strike that grounded Australia's national airline. But the popular koala symbol may once again find itself with few flights to advertise. The Qantas strike -- Australia's most serious labor dispute in more than a decade -- did not fully resolve the dispute over use of airline management personnel to perform union-type work during strikes. Further disruption of air service seems likely.

The Qantas situation began as minor fracas over the numbers of staff assigned to serve on a new jumbo jet, but then mushroomed into a 21-day full-scale strike that grounded commercial international flights to and from the country.

The airline has toted up losses of more than $20 million so far, as well as a severe blow to its prestige. The only clear winner has been the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. His Cabinet's quiet resolve to back Qantas forced an end to the strikes and sparked antiunion demonstrations throughout Australia.

The giant Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and its new president, Cliff Dolan, were on the losing end.

The ACTU fostered a walkout by more than 4,000 employees. Before a cease-fire was called, all international carriers at Sydney Airport were denied fuel.The Royal Australian Air Force ferried home vacationers stranded in New Zealand. (Union threats to cut off fuel to the Air Force because of the airlift were never carried out.)

Ultimately it was the government's full support of Qantas that forced the ACTU to agree to a settlement that puts the Qantas scheduled temporarily back to normal. Service from Los Angeles to Sydney has been resumed; some flights from San Francisco continued throughout the strike.

As the Qantas dispute worsened earlier in March the Fraser Cabinet said it was ready to go to the wall for the national airline. Industrial Relations Minister Andrew Peacock announced that Canberra would, if necessary, shut down the airline and absorb up to $250 million in losses over six months. The government's approach was low key, but its message was clear.

That hard line -- along with a softening in the resolve of union rank and file -- led the ACTU to end the strike March 6. But it wasn't until March 10 that left-wing unions lifted their ban on fuel supplies to international carriers.

The key question remains: When unions strike Qantas, does the airline have the right to use management labor to keep its planes aloft?

North American unions generally do not strike solely over the use of staff labor. But the principle has become an important one for the bold ACTU.

Qantas has used management to keep planes in the air 19 times in the past two years.

The issue is now before a national arbitration committee.

Meanwhile, the dispute has stirred Australian's long-dormant resentment against frequent strikes and brought the normally taciturn middle class into the streets. Demonstrations that followed the strike gave vent to antiunion sentiments not seen here since the "red scares" of the 1950s.

Use of the Air Force to ferry passengers between New Zealand and Australia proved popular. It also provided a much-needed lift for the Fraser government, which has charted an uncertain course since its surprise victory over the Australian Labor Party in last fall's elections.

The surge of antiunion sentiment broadened recently in demonstrations along the populous east coast. More than 70,000 residents of Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne joined in marches calling for an end to excessive strike action. The rallies, which were marred by sporadic fistfights, were patterned after an impromptu demonstration in Auckland, New Zealand, where more than 50,000 turned out to protest 10 days of strikes that virtually shut down New Zealand.

It is not yet clear what tactics the ACTU will use in response. But further disputes with Qantas seem certain in the next few months, and union chief Dolan still argues that staff labor should not be used in any dispute.

Qantas chief Keith Hamilton continues to reserve the right to call in management help should the carrier be hit by new strikes.

For its part the Fraser government is still speaking softly. But it is also holding onto its big stick -- its willingness to deny union demands in another confrontation by closing Qantas, despite the cost in thousands of jobs an d the intangible losses of prestige abroad.

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