Flight attendants fight Air NZ

The Spark June 2009

Air New Zealand flight attendants working for Zeal 320 Ltd took industrial action beginning in March. After months of unsuccessful negotiations between Zeal and the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), the 240 union members employed as flight attendants decided they had had enough. The workers, most of whom are young women with no previous union experience, are employed by Zeal 320 Ltd but work for Air New Zealand. They wear the same uniforms, fly on the same aircraft and are in every respect exactly the same as flight attendants employed directly by Air New Zealand – except in their employment contracts.

Zeal 320 Ltd, a wholly Air New Zealand owned subsidiary, was set up to employ staff on the now defunct cut price Freedom Air. When Freedom Air was absorbed into its parent company, the staff were kept on their Zeal contracts, meaning that they earn thousands of dollars less every year than their co-workers employed directly by Air New Zealand. Zeal staff are employed on a lower base rate than Air New Zealand staff. They are denied many basic allowances such as dry cleaning and other clothing related compensation that people on Air New Zealand contracts receive. The allowances they do receive are generally lower than the Air New Zealand equivalents.

Initially staff took lower-level actions, defying the company’s uniform code and refusing to do some paperwork duties. Air New Zealand group general manager for short haul airlines, Bruce Parton, whinged that “… some Zeal cabin crew are resorting to childish tactics like wearing feather boas, lace gloves, pink wigs and placing stickers on their foreheads and buttocks,” and the airline suspended 13 staff for breaching the code when they refused to remove their wigs. If Parton was concerned about “childish tactics”, he should have been more careful about what he wished for. The staff decided to take strike action and the company reacted by locking the workers out.

Pickets took place in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, where the Zeal staff are based. In each centre, staff, union and supporters turned out in force and received a very positive response from people passing by. Staff who had never been on a picket in their lives were soon taking over the megaphone and leading chants of “Z. E. A. L: What does it spell? Lockout”, “What do we want? Fair pay. When do we want it? Now!” and others which were enthusiastically joined by the other picketers. Australian unionists from the Transport Workers Union, Maritime Union of Australia, and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union also took action by blocking off a busy intersection at Air New Zealand’s Brisbane head office.

This is not the first time Air New Zealand has come under attack over its employment strategy for cabin crew. Almost exactly a year before this industrial action began it was revealed that Air New Zealand was employing and paying the Chinese staff on its Auckland/Shanghai routes on worse conditions than other New Zealand staff. In its defence the airline could only say the staff were employed in accordance with Chinese law and, in effect, that it was standard airline practice to pay Chinese workers less.

Air New Zealand is majority owned by the New Zealand government. When that bail out occurred many people on the left applauded the decision, seeing it as some sort of progressive nationalisation. Nationalisations of this sort are not progressive as the Zeal workers have since discovered. Regardless of its ownership, Air New Zealand needs to be fought all the way over their cut price staffing practices.

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