Nearly all of the analysis and critique of the Qantas saga since the grounding has turned on the designs of principal players, their behaviours in the moment and the vagaries of the Fair Work Act.
It has been taken as a given that Qantas and indeed Australian industrial relations are adversarial in character and that the workplace parties are destined to fight it out. Legacy must determine destiny. This assumption is an insular one and needs to be to be challenged.
There is no one model of bargaining. It can be played out in many ways, ranging from productive to destructive. The convenors of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation have, over the years, identified the elements on the unproductive side of the spectrum, and they look something like this:
1) Develop target and resistance positions in advance
2) Overstate opening positions
3) Commit to these positions early and publicly
4) Use information tactically, not to inform
5) Be abusive – discredit the other side
6) Use coercive forms of power and keep the other side off balance
7) Escalate the dispute
8) Power is your first option
9) Litigation is your second option
10) Your position must prevail; don’t try to reconcile the underlying interests of all
With only minor variations, the Qantas parties have followed this script.
“Rogues” versus “madman”
In case not everyone got the message first time round, the party with means has placed full-page newspaper ads denigrating its negotiating opponents and selectively informing the public about the nature of the dispute.
Union communiqués, not quite so fetching, have been telegraphing their singular views with at least equal gusto (although the pilots have been quite measured in their messaging). Nothing has been done jointly; all actions and announcements have been unilateral.
Coercive measures have been deployed to destabilise the other party. The conflict has been escalated, right up to the attempted knock-out blow. With that avenue of attrition now temporarily exhausted, the switch has been made to litigation.
The issues are complex and the stakes are large. The parties are happy to dramatise the latter, but insist, perversely, that the former are simple. So they declare and defend rigid positions.
They attack the very legitimacy of the other side’s position. They have “no choice” in the actions they take. Compromise is not possible when one is without choice and the stance of the other party is in any event illegitimate.
And when you have no choices, you are relieved of the responsibility to explore alternatives.
If the parties are sensible, they will settle through conciliation. That settlement will be a poor compromise, because the parties have set themselves up to leave a great deal of value on the negotiating table. If they proceed to arbitration, they will be worse off.
Litigation demands that parties advocate partisan positions in stylised ways. With that as input, it becomes very difficult for a tribunal to fashion a remedy that lands in the Goldilocks zone.
Arbitration delivers results, not solutions.
The frame in which this Australian mini-epic is being played out is remarkably one-dimensional. It is as if the parties can do no other; captives of their genes and circumstance.
Australia ranks as number two to Norway on the United Nations 2011 Development Index. To displace the northerners, we may just need to borrow and bend their cooperative workplace relations model (not to mention their sovereign wealth fund). Perhaps it requires greatness and imagination to break the mould, but it is just possible that it takes only intuitive pragmatism, a trait not far from our political centre.
Qantas’s business strategy is not illegitimate; it is a tenable response to competition in a globalised industry. The pilots’, engineers and baggage handlers’ calls for job security and improved conditions are not wild; they are defensible propositions in the face of the relentless national hollowing out of jobs and the executive pay trajectory.
Qantas shareholders and Qantas staff have a huge shared interest in the viability, sustainability and indeed prosperity of the airline. Their shared interest easily outweighs their conflicting ones.
Those who represent and act for shareholders and staff need to search out common goals and reconcile competing ones, managing conflict intelligently along the way. They need a different framework in which to do so. That they are locked in a closed spiral of adversarialism should be regarded as a failure of their collective imagination and an unacceptable breach of their respective fiduciary duties.
Recipe for productive bargaining
The recipe for high performance workplaces is as well-known as the recipe for productive bargaining. It turns on all-stakeholder comprehension and endorsement of a value-driven business model and, as the recent and persuasive study published by the Society for Knowledge Economics confirms, employee engagement founded on trust and respect.
Other studies track the labour-management dimension. Prescient employers recognise unions as the freely chosen representative of their employees. Prescient unions go beyond defending entitlements; they partner for business success. Mutual gain, not tenuous compromise, is the joint objective. A corporation at loggerheads with its staff and their representatives cannot be a long term winner.
When stakeholders with shared and conflicting interests have to grapple with complex, high-stakes issues, a problem-solving approach is the only one that can deliver mutual gain. Mindful parties draw on subject matter and process experts to help them develop scenarios and solutions.
Tough choices and options
They grow options, and options give them choices, including some difficult choices. But if relationships are strong and trusting, tough choices can be made and integrated business solutions supported.
The Qantas workplace relations formula over recent years has turned on the management of passable fractiousness. That bumbling approach to a unionised workforce has come to end. It is (just) possible that after the current turmoil subsides, another era of uneasy workplace relations will follow.
But given the heights to which the current discord has been shunted, the denouement is likely to bring casualties and a new order.
Disdain, but a cheap ride
Ryanair is a low-cost airline that offers its customers a cheap ride and shareholders a useful return, even as it treats all and sundry with disdain and scrapes the edge of the safety barriers.
Southwest is also “value” airline, but its continuing success comes off the back of a deep and sustained investment in respect for all stakeholders: customers, suppliers, contractors, employees, unions and community.
The Ryanair option is intolerant of unionisation. It does not accommodate competing interests. While Qantas will never be able to eliminate unions, it could,_ a la_ Rio Tinto, whittle away at them in a bitter, long haul struggle.
The Southwest Airlines option would be no quick fix either; it takes years to build trust and respect, and even then requires strong leadership amongst all parties to sustain.
What’s the circuit-breaker?
On present form, those who lead look doggedly set in their limited ways. Where, then, the circuit-breaker? Waiting for the mounting costs of folly to become apparent is a poor substitute for inspired agency. The provision of “a framework for cooperative workplace relations” was the declared object of Work Choices and is the declared object of the Fair Work Act.
Government, business and labour need to think what it would really mean to promote that ostensibly bipartisan aim. Social opponents must become at least mutually respected social parties, at best social partners. And the Qantas shareholders and staff need to find a new voice.
The sky is full of choices.