Canada isn’t the only place experiencing labour relations turbulence in the airline industry. There were airline strikes and lockouts in France and Australia last week. The lockout by Qantas was just ended by an Australian Tribunal.
The Qantas Situation and the Australian law
The Australian situation involving Qantas is especially interesting because of its similarities to the Canadian Air Canada fiasco. Here’s a very brief synopsis. The unions representing Qantas employees were in a legal strike position and began engaging in a series of short strikes, which disrupted the airline and caused it to cancel some 600 flights. Then, in a sudden and unexpected move, Qantas locked out all of the workers and grounded all flights over the weekend. Qantas, like Air Canada, is the major airline servicing Australia.
A centre-left, Labour government is presently in power in Australia. However, restrictive labour laws introduced by the previous right of centre government led by John Howard in the 1990s (the “WorkChoices” reforms) remain in place. One of the provisions in that legislation is of interest here in Canada, because it may be a model our Conservative government is looking at, as I noted recently.
The Qantas strikes and lockouts are now over because of a decision of a labour relations tribunal issued yesterday. Here is the decision. The government filed an application similar to our government’s recent “reference” that ended any possibility of an Air Canada flight attendant strike. Recall that our government had to pretend that an Air Canada strike posed an imminent threat to health and safety of Canadians, a ridiculous claim, in order to bring itself within Section 87.4 of the Canada Labour Code. That is the essential services section, which permits the government to ask the Labour Board to ban a strike until issues of health and safety have been dealt with.
In Australia, the Howard government added a part to the equivalent essential service section. Here is what the legislation says:
s. 424 Suspension or termination of protected industrial action
(1) [The Tribunal] must make an order suspending or terminating protected industrial action for a proposed enterprise agreement that:
(a) is being engaged in; or
(b) is threatened, impending or probable;
if [the Tribunal] is satisfied that the protected industrial action has threatened, is threatening, or would threaten:
(c) to endanger the life, the personal safety or health, or the welfare, of the population or of part of it; or
(d) to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it.”
The Australian government asked the Tribunal to end the lockout and the strikes, arguing that the work stoppages were causing “significant damage to the Australian economy” and the tourist industry in particular. The government argued that tourism was “an important part” of the economy, amounting to 2.6% of GDP and employed 500,000 Australians, and that the strikes and lockouts were threatening significant damage to that industry.
Interestingly, the Tribunal found that the strikes did not cause or threaten to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or the tourism industry. However, the employer’s response to the strikes, the full-fledged lockout, did (see paragraph 9). As a result, the Tribunal ordered an end to the work stoppages, and ordered the parties to engage in further conciliation, failing which the Tribunal will act as an interest arbitrator and impose collective agreements.
Here is a Q&A with my labour law professor colleague Anthony Forsyth, from Monash University. Thanks to Anthony for providing me with the details of this situation.
Watch for the Conservative Government to Borrow John Howard’s Move to Make ‘the Economy” Essential
Section 424(1)(d) is precisely what our Canadian Tories want. Here’s the reform that I predicted last week that we would soon see from our majority Tory government:
87.4 (1) During a strike or lockout not prohibited by this Part, the employer, the trade union and the employees in the bargaining unit must continue the supply of services, operation of facilities or production of goods to the extent necessary to prevent an immediate and serious danger to the safety or health of the public or serious harm to the Canadian economy.
Look familiar? Watch for an Australian-like reform of the Canada Labour Code, coming soon to a Parliament near year.
Do you think that Canadian governments should follow the Australian lead and enact a power to order an end to strikes and lockouts whenever they “threaten serious economic harm”?
If so, what evidence should be required to prove “serious economic harm”?