More passenger pain possible as Qantas dispute heads to umpire

THE Qantas dispute will drag into next year and there is a threat of further legal action, with negotiations between the three unions and the airline collapsing within hours of the mandated deadline.

Despite a push by the Transport Workers Union to extend the 21-day negotiation period, yesterday afternoon airline management walked away from talks with its ground crew, including baggage handlers and catering staff, less than an hour after doing the same with its long-haul pilots.

Late in the afternoon, Qantas and the third union locked in dispute, the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, agreed to call it quits and hand the remaining unresolved issues - the use of contractors and hiring staff from outside Australia - over to the industrial relations umpire.

The process of binding arbitration under Fair Work Australia is expected to take months as the umpire gathers evidence and calls for expert witnesses and written submissions.

Although unlikely, disruptions to the holiday plans of thousands of Qantas passengers cannot be ruled out, with the TWU to decide on Thursday whether it will mount a legal challenge to Fair Work's order on October 31 to terminate industrial action. The union has said it will seek a stay if it decides to challenge, which would allow its members to resume work stoppages over the Christmas and New Year period.

The pilots' union has already begun legal action against Fair Work's decision with the first directions hearing in the Federal Court set down for December 1.

But industrial law experts are sceptical about the likely success of the TWU and pilots' legal challenges.

Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum, from the Sydney Law School, said it was highly unlikely the Federal Court would grant the TWU a stay, which would allow its members to take legal strike action.

''The [union's case] would have to successfully argue that Fair Work acted contrary to the law, that they misconstrued their powers … and that will be very hard to do,'' he said.


The Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, said there was a lack of goodwill and respect from all sides and the government's position on union moves to take legal action was iron clad.

''We don't support people taking legal action. We have an umpire and the umpire should be allowed to make their decision. We're confident the courts would uphold that,'' he said.

The Workplace Relations Minister, Chris Evans, warned that further industrial action by any party would be unlawful.

The federal secretary of the TWU, Tony Sheldon, said Qantas had decided to drag its employees through the courts rather than agree to an extension of the conciliation period, where the issue of job security, including the number of contractors

Qantas wanted to use, were the sticking points.

''Qantas has not displayed good faith in these negotiations. The TWU wanted a sprint to the finish but Qantas just hopped on the treadmill. It looked like they were moving but they weren't going anywhere.''

The vice-president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, Richard Woodward, said negotiations had ended after the two sides failed to agree over the terms for efficiency gains of up to 20 per cent in areas such as pilot rostering.

''Management obviously believes that a decision achieved through arbitration is preferable,'' he said. "It is a pity that Qantas as an airline will have to be subjected to this long, drawn-out process when a negotiated outcome was possible.''

Qantas's chief executive, Alan Joyce, conceded that binding arbitration could take months but said it would eventually lead to agreements that could last as long as four years.

He dismissed claims from the pilots' union that Qantas never intended to reach an agreement during the 21 days.

''Passengers can now travel with confidence. The winners out of this are our customers. The winners out of this are employees and our shareholders. They have certainty,'' he said.