Time to put Qantas back in public hands

If you speak out against the widening gap between wages and CEOs’ salaries, the corporate media will accuse you of stoking the “politics of envy”. Workers who dare take industrial action to get a few more crumbs from the bosses’ table are cast as class war dinosaurs.

The Occupy protesters? We’re told they are naive rebels without a clue. But the Qantas lock-out proves otherwise.

Along with lots of guff about how Labor’s “Fair Work” laws “swung the balance too far” in workers’ favour, the corporate elite have been falling over themselves to sympathise with poor Qantas CEO Alan Joyce who, with a $2 million pay rise in his back pocket, had “no choice” but to lock out his entire workforce.

The pilots had worn special neckties, the engineers imposed work bans, and ground staff struck for just eight hours in eight months. Pretty mild stuff.

If that’s going too far then you get a pretty clear picture of just how much bargaining power these employers think you deserve: zero.

The richest 1% and their puppets in government and the corporate media have never stopped waging the class war, and they’ve mostly been winning. It’s not just Australia’s increasingly unequal income distribution that bears this out, but the laws that have made it possible.

Former Coalition prime minister John Howard began his reign with the 1996 Workplace Relations Act. When workers protested outside Parliament House, Labor politicians huffed and puffed. But just like the GST, Labor now supports it. If you ask why, you’ll get some bullshit answer about how it’s all too hard to “unscramble the egg”.

After being elected on the back of the Your Rights at Work campaign, Labor left most of Howard’s Work Choices industrial laws in place. Labor has never repealed all of a previous conservative government’s attacks on workers rights. We’re always going three steps back, one step forward and three steps back again.

Most frustrating is how most of the union officialdom go along with this dance, promoting blind loyalty to Labor because the Liberals are worse — as if the members are too stupid to be told the truth.

After Kevin Rudd was elected in late 2007, they put the Your Rights at Work campaign into mothballs, just when it should have gone up a notch.

When pressed, union leaders agreed that Labor hadn’t delivered. Just wait until their second term to get the rest of what we were owed, they said. We’re still waiting.

The employers are using the current disputes at Qantas, on the waterfront and elsewhere to bang on about their desire to scrap the few improvements delivered by the Fair Work laws, and to convince Tony Abbott to confront his Work Choices bogeyman. The bosses are not afraid to unscramble eggs.

But consider how difficult it is for workers to legally strike, how many hoops they and their unions have to jump through. In contrast, an employer can take the most drastic form of industrial action without any penalty at all.

We have to remind Australians that without the ability to withdraw their labour they have no bargaining power at all. The right to strike is an inalienable human right, like free speech or freedom of religion. No law can change or modify that fact.

Time too to ask some questions about the place of Qantas in our economic and social life. It was only in 1993 that the Keating Labor government sold it off. If the grounding of its fleet represents such a threat to our so-called national interest, shouldn’t it be returned to public ownership? Shouldn’t it function as a public service for the public good?

If you suggest this, then the pro-corporate politicians and media will look at you like you just stepped off a spaceship. It’s one of those sacred eggs you can’t unscramble.

Interestingly though, an October 24 Essential Media Communications survey said 43% of Australians supported the government taking Qantas back into public hands. Just 34% opposed the idea.

How can we have a meaningful democracy when the decisions made in key sectors of the economy that profoundly shape our lives, society and environment are made not in the parliament but the unelected boardrooms?

Sectors of the economy like banking, transport, mining and telecommunications are not a festival of free enterprise, they are highly monopolised. If they are not brought under public ownership we will never be able to harness the human and material resources capable of halting the ecological and social crises besetting planet earth.

[Sam Wainwright wrote this comment piece for Green Left Weekly #902. See also: Workplace laws gave Qantas what it wanted.]

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