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The Australian Pilots Dispute in 1989


John Pilger in his book Secret Country wrote about graft and corruption in Australia Today. He mentions several various powerful individuals. These same individuals – Sir Peter Ables, Rupert Murdoch, Bob Hawke all were involved in the conspiracy to smash the Australian Federation of Air Pilots. Because Peter Ables and Rupert Murdoch were involved in the Airline Industry explains why they were so keen to confront the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, the union legally representing pilots flying in Australia. This was on their agenda because of the future deregulation of the industry, with its consequent greater competition. So the AFAP had to be eliminated from the industry, because of their success in gaining adequate salaries for pilots in the past. But there were other reasons.

The AFAP is one of the few unions in which the officials, all pilots, are elected by their own members. They are not paid. The pilots run their own union.

Australian pilots through their Federation were highly regarded for their work and achievements in world aviation safety, security and all technical matters.

It is no secret therefore that Australian aviation has never had a jet fatality and this is the envy of the world. But this would change if the AFAP is not allowed to operate.

Now the dispute

Pilots employed by the major domestic airlines have, since the early seventies successfully negotiated two year Agreements with very little recourse to industrial action.

The Federation had only 14 days on strike in 37 years, and part of that was when the Government decided to tax on superannuation at the rate of 66cents in the dollar.

In 1985 the TAA (Trans Australia Airlines) pilots last negotiated a two year agreement.

In 1986, Ansett and East West pilots included separate agreements with their companies.

In 1987 TAA was in poor economic position and the pilots decided not to press a negotiation on a new agreement in the hope that the company’s fortunes would improve.

In June, 1989, therefore, with Australian Airlines position improved, the company just having announced a record profit, the Australian pilots met with management to negotiate their first agreement for four years.

They were currently working extended overtime for no salary benefit, to assist in the Boeing B737-300 introduction following a serious miscalculation by management, who had planned a training programme many months behind the aircraft introduction.

The Australian pilots DID have a bona fide expectation of improving their remunerations through productivity, just as Ansett and east West pilots had in both 1986 and 1988.

The Ansett pilots which now included East West Airlines, were well ahead in salary of the Australian pilots.

The Federation determined a pay demand of 29.47% and served this on the Industry on the 26th July, 1989.

That amount was calculated by going back over a period from 1984 to 1985 to June, 1989. During this period pilot salaries had slipped behind the cost of living by 23% for Captains and 21% for First Officers. A compound 7% for inflation to cover the year 1989 to 1990 was then added.

But Australian Airlines refused to negotiate. To do so, they claimed, would have collided with the Industrial relations guidelines being worked out between the ACTU and the Government. Then the conspiracy against the pilots deepened.

During August 1989, Australian Airlines and Ansett representatives met on the dispute. This was expanded later to include the ACTU. Meetings took place in the offices of the two Airlines the ACTU Officials felt more comfortable there. By the way, one Ansett person had been a former ACTU Industrial Officer responsible for the Airline industry. They discussed the penalties to be imposed on the individual pilots and their Union.

On the 15th August, in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the Government representative initiated the question of the cancellation of Awards by stating:

"the Government will support any move for the cancellation or the suspension of the agreements relating to the terms and conditions of employment of pilots.",
and then the Prime Minister convened a meeting of Ministers and Airline Chairmen.

The companies chose to up the governments lead and made application for the cancelling of the Awards in the Industrial Relations Commission.

On the 18th August, pilots began a campaign to work between the hours of 9.00am and 5.00pm. (i.e. 8 hours a day, 7 days a week). Such industrial action was to bring on negotiations with the Airlines.

Then on Sunday 20th and Monday 21st August, 1989, the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, when talking about the Airlines strategy said:

"We have discussed the contingency plans that will be pursued by the Airlines, i.e. the adoption of legal processes against individual pilots and their organisation, which processes will carry significant penalties for individual pilots and for the Federation. I say without equivocation, that when the Airlines decide to initiate those legal processes with significantly very drastic financial penalties against individual pilots and their organisation, the Airlines will be pursuing those legal processes with the full support of my Government."

The President of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots explained that the writs on pilot’s family placed all assets - home, life savings & superannuation - at risk. The Federation sought legal advice, pilots had two options:-

And so the battle lines were drawn – the largest and most bitter industrial dispute in Australia in most recent years.

At this stage of the dispute Brian McCarthy, the President of the AFAP made the criticism of the public and private role of Mr. Hawke,

Quite plainly, if he had kept out of it and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission had not allowed itself to be shunted out at a critical time, and the ACTU had spent time in genuine and honest face to face discussions with the Federation, (and not advising the Airlines), I have no doubt the dispute would have been resolved, fairly and quickly.

On the 27th October, 1989, the Federation offered a return to work by all pilots on pre dispute conditions so that all services could return to work for Christmas. A cooling off period would follow with negotiations free from the threat of industrial action.

Government Ministers and the Airlines chorused: "Too little, too late!" A very contrived and calculated response. They never wanted a resolution involving the pilots and their Union, the Australian Federation of Airline Pilots. They would not rest until the Federation was no more.

Further government action followed:-

Of the 1,300 pilots and their families that remained unemployed in Australia, some 800 have been forced overseas to continue some sort of career. Most wish to live and work in Australia and be reunited with families back here. The rest are in the process of leaving Australia or picking up their careers with new domestic operators, who are very keen to employ them.

After Thursday 1st November, 1990, the new airlines will be able to claim the most experienced Australian pilots. Their reputation is their reference, simply the best.

Brian McCarthy sums up:-

What of wage determination? There never was one. After all the righteous outbursts from the Airlines, Governments and its Ministers, the ACTU and the AIRC, the Americans and those others who joined them received salary rises of between 40 and 100%. Salaries for Airline pilots who now work in the Industry have been increased beyond their wildest dreams. The problem for management, the Government and the ACTU is that 1,300 pilots of the Federation and their families were not prepared to pay their price.

What of the union extermination ? A combination of the most abhorrent and anti-labour practices ever employed in the free world could not break the spirit, principle and integrity of over 80% of Australia’s domestic airline pilots and their families. In a country where mateship, and sticking by your mates is the quality most admired and respected, these are the people who have been put to the that test, and passed.

Dick Curlewis

Some Conclusions in 2003:

The Australian Treasury has stated that the pilots dispute is the most expensive decision of government other than the Vietnam war !

The ACTU and affiliated unions stood back and did nothing during the bosses attack on freedom of association. The "left" inside the ALP; and outside, in the self-labelled radical Parties were also absent. Where was the solidarity or positive analysis during or since the dispute ?

Is it because the union members, all pilots, elect the unpaid officials? (This contrasts with and undermines the familiar bureaucratic political and union organisations.)

So-called "competition" always ends up as "monopoly" for the largest Corporation. This holds true for other industries too eg. mining where BHP Billiton is now the largest on the planet and continues to merge/take over other "competitors" and casualise its workforce while exploiting and polluting the environment.


In 1990? Qantas was "Corporatised" then privatised/sold off by the Hawke-Keating Federal Government.

In 1992 Compass Airlines was set up in "competition" but when excluded from access to major Terminal facilities by the "monopolistic" Ansett & Qantas "duopoly" went broke.

In 1994? "Australian Airlines" was merged with Qantas

In 2002 Ansett Airlines - invested in by New Zealand Airlines - went "broke".

Directors were of course paid out all their entitlements. BUT workers were not, most still await even 20 cents in the dollar they are owed as their superannuation funds etc were "gone".

New Zealand Airlines has itself now been invested in by Qantas so the NZA workers have an insecure globalised future now too. This left Qantas with a monopoly of major routes inside Australia.

Virgin Airlines has begun flying major inter-city routes.

Virgin Australia is fronted and owned by Richard Branson the “cultural entreprenaur” BUT Virgin is also 50% owned by the Transport tycoon Chris Corrigan (Patricks docks and shipping, Toll Trucking & National Railways). Virgin is flying to New Zealand.

Chubb Security workers have repeatedly tied to unionise with limited results. CFMEU members working on airline terminal & carpark extensions took industrial action to support the Chubb Security, Ansett workers and earlier to help disrupt Garuda (Indonesian) Airlines flights during the 1999 East Timor massacres crisis.

The 2003 ACTU Congress in Melbourne had a Director (ie. Boss) from Qantas speaking to the delegates, ironically, as Qantas was that day bringing in casual, part-time non-union ground staff/baggage handlers which was resisted by a walk-out stoppage. The more alert delegates at the Congress challenged the speaker and the ACTU bureaucrats for being so naïve and out of touch with ongoing struggles at the airports.

Related Information

Obituary Richard (Dick) Curlewis (1917 - 2002) Workers' Control Advocate

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Last modified: May 13, 2004

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