The recent suspension of domestic and international flights by Qantas in an attempt to halt industrial action raises questions regarding the obligation of employers to consult with workers ahead of an impending lockout.
Qantas introduced the lockout with very little warning to members of the public, workers and government on Saturday. Tens of thousands of passengers were stranded internationally and speculations were made about the effect of the measure on the Australian economy and tourism industry. Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, described the decision by Qantas as “extreme” and union leaders highlighted the lack of consultation in introducing this unprecedented industrial action.
By providing minimal notice of the lockout, Qantas departed from the process of consultation and cooperation generally followed by its unions regarding strike action. Alan Joyce, CEO, Qantas claimed that the final decision to ground the airline was only made on the Saturday morning but union members remain highly skeptical of this claim. As Richard Woodward, Vice President of the Australian International Pilots Association told the ABC, “You don’t stop an airline overnight”.
If an airline wished to impose a lockout in New Zealand, it would have a statutory obligation to provide at least two weeks notice to unions due to the classification of airlines as an ‘essential service’ under the Employment Relations Act 2000. A decision released by the Employment Court in October, Services and Food Workers Union v PSA, held that an essential service lockout was unlawful because of a failure to provide adequate notice.
The notice provisions for essential services are in keeping with the duty of good faith which underpins the Act and requires employers, employees and unions to be responsive and communicative with each other.