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Rankin - Ansett NZ Pilots Confront 90s' Reality

For most of this month, Ansett New Zealand pilots have been in dispute with their employer. Ansett New Zealand is 100% owned by News Corporation (meaning media magnate, Rupert Murdoch). The dispute is not just about Ansett. It's about a relatively privileged occupational group that is only now coming to grips with the post-ECA (1991 Employment Contracts Act) labour market environment. When Ansett pilots eventually sign their new contracts, and submit to a 25% attrition, then Air New Zealand pilots can be expected to face similar employment contracts. The pilots are loyal to their still unionised profession, not to their employers.

The Ansett pilots have gained a significant amount of public support, probably because their fight represents the last stand of the old labour relations system against the new. The privileged Inter-Island seamen (including ship's captains) never got as much public support during their scraps in t he 1980s. I wonder how much support a hypothetical NUSE (National Union of Salaried Executives) would receive in today's climate. Not much, I expect. But you never know. After all, we tend to feel better towards middle class unionists than we ever did to the cooks and stewards on the Aramoana.

The pilots cannot win this one. The doomed contracts of the Ansett pilots already seem quaint when contrasted with the contracts that most of the rest of us are on. Bus drivers, also responsible for the safety of their passengers, lost their struggle years ago. And our overworked young doctors an d nurses have as much responsibility for lives as do pilots.

Taken as a whole, the 20th century was one in which workers (ie employees) successfully claimed a large share of an historically large economic cake. In doing so, the 20th century proved to be the most equitable (at least for ethnic Europeans) since the 15th century. The dominant economic force was neither socialism nor capitalism; it was labourism. This century was the century of the wage and salary earner.

Now we are just 100 days short of the 21st century. Given that the 90s' decades of each century tended to act as a preview of the ensuing century, it is unlikely that labour, as an economic class, will resume its 20th century power. I'm not sure that I can lament the passing of an era that was, in its own way, as exclusive as the 19th century era of capital.

Increased social equality can be achieved next century. But, if it happens, it will be through the assertion of public property rights, not exclusive labour rights. It will not be through an aristocracy of labour. Those of us who favour equity and inclusiveness should anticipate the new struggle, and let the old labour-capital class war rest in peace.

Unions will still have a role, of course, in the 21st century economy. Just as labour should not seek to make gains at the expense of the public interest (which happened often enough this century), so labour should continue to organise to resist exploitation. Organising for the many was always harder than organising for the few.

In confronting the new order, we must accept that markets will be an important part of that order. And, in asserting public property rights, we need to accept the legitimacy of private property rights such as the right of proprietors to dispose of their property. The Ansett dispute involves a company that has accumulated 10 years of losses and that is now owned by a media proprietor who has no reason or desire to be in the airline business. Ansett New Zealand is for sale, and rightly so. Ansett pilots cannot demand that Murdoch's television companies cont inue to subsidise anachronistic salary packages.

News Corporation really only has two choices: sell Ansett New Zealand or shut it down. It can only do the former if it can show a profit. I am sure that the pilots do understand this. But we must remember that the pilots' union is dominated by Air New Zealand pilots; pilots who will not lament if Ansett passes.

Without competition from Ansett, Air New Zealand's domestic operation, as a monopoly, could turn a profit without having to cut pilot numbers and pilot salaries, by raising fares and reducing its level of service.

The logic of the aviation industry down-under is that there is room for two and only two major players: Qantas and Air New Zealand. The only issues outstanding are the prices that News Corporation will settle for. I am sure that Qantas will eventually buy Ansett New Zealand, and that Air New Zeal and will buy the remainder of Ansett Australia from News Corporation, leaving Air New Zealand full owner of Ansett Australia. The sooner these exchanges take place, the better.

New Zealand has been better for having Ansett fly here. Ansett New Zealand won a lot of good will, especially in Wellington, by purchasing its quiet "whisper jets" at a time when Air New Zealand was claiming the right to use as many noisy jets as it wished. I look forward to Ansett surviving as Qantas New Zealand.

I would like to see the surpluses generated by the aviation industry pass to the people via company taxation, rather than be appropriated, in the form of overly generous salaries, to the industry's most powerful employees, its pilots and its executives. It is the public - meaning each of us as equals under law - who should gain the lions share of the economic surplus. What Ansett and Air New Zealand pilots lose in salaries can be made up, in part, by a universal social wage.


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