Industrial Relations Strategies in the Air Pilots' Dispute 1989

By McDonald, Jim | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, June 1990 | Go to article overview

Industrial Relations Strategies in the Air Pilots' Dispute 1989


McDonald, Jim, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


1. Introduction

The 1989 air pilots' dispute ended in the defeat of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots; mass resignations reduced significantly the bargaining power of the union; and pilots now working in the major airlines have the open support of management for company associations of pilots and for "agency coverage" in the Commission by the Australian Transport Officers' Federation (ATOF).

This paper is not an account of that dispute. It is rather an attempt to explain, in strategic terms, the role of the Federation's coantrobution to its own demise in the period August to December 1989. Strategic analysis identifies that the Federation applied a narrow range of options for action designed to achieve its objectives. The union leadership's adherence to established methods, its limited assessment of the industrial relations environment and its seeming inability both to recognize the full implications of its predicament and to adapt its tactics to the circumstances as events unfolded can be explained in terms of strategic inertia. Application of this concept is not predictive but provides a framework for some understanding of how a union can place its members'jobs and its viability at risk despite a successful industrial relations record.

At the end of the dispute, the Federation was reduced from its position as a union with 100 per cent unionisation and a strong industrial relations record to one of minimal influence in the major airlines. The AFAP's strategy and tactics will be compared and contrasted with two other contemporaneous disputes in the industry, earlier campaigns in 1977 and 1978 involving challenges to the wage fixation principles, and with a significant airline industry union defeat in the United States.

Despite the continuing agitation by the Federation and its members against the airlines, the Government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) the dispute had ended by Christmas 1989. Any assessment of the final outcomes will be speculative due to the proximity of events. The Federation, for example, is currently pursuing action in the High Court regarding alleged breaches of the Immigration Act in the recruitment of overseas pilots. It is also opposing the company sponsored attempts in the Commission for ATOF representation of pilots acting on behalf of the associations.

2. The Setting

The dispute erupted on 18 August 1989, when the AFAP applied a directive to its members in the two major airlines, East West Airlines and IPEC to work only between 9am and 5pm. This tactic effectively limited flights to between 10am and 4.45pm under the work rules set out in the pilot awards. The bans were implemented after Australian Airlines refused to negotiate any elements of a Federation log of claims which were outside the National Wage Fixation guidelines, in particular its salary ambit.

The employers--Australian Airlines Ltd, Ansett Transport Industries (Operations) Pty Ltd, East West Airlines (Operations) Pty Ltd and IPEC Aviation--coped with these arrangements, rescheduling aircraft, until 24 August. At that point the companies assessed that they would make no progress in the face of the expressed determination of the AFAP to pursue its claims outside the wage fixation principles.

Following threats to do so, the airlines began issuing writs, suing the Federation, its officers and individual members. The leadership's response on 23 August, on ascertaining that the employers actually intended to pursue legal remedies, was to organise the mass resignation of pilots employed by the four carriers.

The companies broke off from proceedings before Mr Justice Coldham in the Commission, and applied to the Full Bench for the cancellation of the pilots' consent awards in each of the airlines. The Full Bench provided the AFAP a number of opportunities during the hearings, including a period of days to reconsider its position and to withdraw from its public avowal to pursue its claims outside the guidelines. …

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