Trust, Honor, Commitment,Integrity 

Trust, honour, commitment and integrity are exactly the words you’d hope could be used to describe a relationship of mutual respect. It is no accident that these words and ones like them feature heavily in wedding vows as two people set off on what will hopefully be a lifelong shared journey.

Consider then the relationship between Airservices and its employees. Many, myself included, have described the relationship between our employer and its employees as damaged or toxic...

Indeed CEO Greg Russell, early in his tenure, described Airservices as completely dysfunctional and tried to emplace a management structure that addressed the “people issues” as a matter of priority. The “Requisite Organisation” model, upon which the management revamp was based, has at its heart a basic tenet that dysfunctional organisations are generally a measure of poor structure and processes rather than the quality of the individual...s that operate within the corporate environment. Given this focus of the remake of Airservices, why is staff morale at previously unimaginable lows?

Many will put it down to the angst associated with Collective Agreement negotiations but it is my belief that this goes much deeper. Repeated attacks on employees as the root cause of Airservices’ problems are in fact to a large extent unfounded.
The long term inability of management (or perhaps unwillingness) to engage its staff in meaningful dialogue over the range of issues which affect each and every one of us as we go about the business of earning Airservices and its sole shareholder a significant profit is evident in every aspect of the working day. Whether it be the very publicly painful process of collective bargaining, or the omnipresent work arounds to cover shortfalls in software processing, these and a myriad of other issues seem to be structured to alienate the workers from input.

Consultation seems to have largely become a process of asking for input after decisions have been made. Industrial democracy, once a mandatory subject of examination in interview in selection exercises for management positions, is no longer even discussed let alone embraced. Recently we had an period where 5 members were simultaneously facing “show cause” disciplinary action, all of which were primarily based upon alleged code of conduct issues. So this hardening of attitude by management towards the employees seems to becoming an entrenched view of the “right way to do business”. Disciplinary processes seem to have a minimum outcome of first and final warnings with monotonous regularity.

Airservices across the past year has conducted a disinformation campaign publicly through the media, and privately in briefings to industry, that the ATC shortage is no more and that airspace closures are the result of renegade controllers taking matters into their own hands. “Holding the country to ransom for an industrial agenda.” Civil Air has defended you vigorously denying such action. We, collectively, have run what I believe to be an exemplary campaign engaging at every opportunity to show our willingness to negotiate whilst still standing firm to the needs of our members. I was somewhat amused to read in a public forum Civil Air being described variously as “the Greg Norman of trade unions” and “out of touch with its members”.

The outcome of the agreement is extraordinary, given the industrial and financial climate, and the attacks on conditions we faced from the outset. I firmly believe that members should feel proud of what their association has been able to achieve with the demonstrable solidarity of its members. As I and the Civil Air negotiating committee have advised at meetings and in correspondence – a YES vote is strongly recommended. For those non-members out there, as always they will pick up substantially riding our coat-tails without committing themselves to their own welfare. So be it. We can’t have everyone in the association. In some cases we might not even want everyone but the strength of this collective is something of a poster image for trade unions at the moment.

So now we’re at the point where, over the next fortnight or so you will be asked to consider the new ATC Collective Agreement. I won’t try and rehash the content of the agreement here. It is out in the public domain via Civil Air’s website and the Q&A forum on it, together with being available in hard copy or electronically in your workplace. So if the agreement gets up where does that leave us over the next few years?

Our long term objectives as espoused in the “Vision Document” will be revisited. We will also need to review your views in objective setting for the next agreement. This is part of our industrial planning process. What more needs to be done? The negotiation process through which we have been dragged has damaged the reputations of both Civil Air and Airservices. More importantly the working relationship between management has been further damaged. A few months ago I wouldn’t have thought this possible but repeated management attacks, particularly in the People and Change domain, have further bolstered the endemic distrust between managers at all levels and their staff. The result of this is, as I have described it many times, a toxic relationship.

Key to this seems to be a deepening divide between operational management and the HR realm. Staff are being informed that all matters pertaining to their employment are to be dealt with directly by their immediate manager and ideally this command chain should not be broken except in the case of grievance. From the other side of it managers are being directed to manage but at every step being second guessed by people who are neither familiar with the workplace or specific issues relating to individual staff. In short there appears to be a systematic breakdown in the relationship between the responsibilities and accountabilities of management.

The current push to rollout “Leaders Leading” after 3 years of essentially limiting it to management is viewed by most, at best, as management bullshit. Most believe that organisationally it is criminal to devote scant operational resources to this activity when rosters are thin, refresher training essentially non-existent and new software training is limited to CBT. It is my belief that there is a place for such development work between front line managers (I’m a luddite – let’s refer to them as Supervisors). We used to do exactly this in the team day format. With the back to the future focus on operational structures at present perhaps this is something that should be revisited but at present we seem to be running flat out just to stay where we are. But – there is an organisational push to prioritise this training over and above major operational shortfalls. So in how do we deal with the prerequisite to address these real operational issues – resources?

This brings us neatly to the staff shortage. A year ago I opined in media that were approximately 10% short of our real requirement for ATCs. Greg Russell famously promised that the staffing issues would be fixed by the end of August. As I write this it is August 261st. Ok, it’s a cheap shot but it demonstrates that this is an issue significantly beyond the ability of a glib media comment to fix. Civil Air is of the opinion that if the “Learning Academy” can be turned around (no small task in itself), the actual injection of skilled staff to address today’s problems will take about 3 years. Success rates sit at around the 50 - 60% range and the process is almost universally damned by the graduates who do make it. This is no reflection on the dedicated instructional staff who operating in a possibly fatally flawed regime. So how will the organisation cope in the mean time? You guessed it, “doing more with less” or perhaps “Working smarter not harder”.

Let’s review what normally happens in harsh times economically in business. First, streamline processes to reduce waste and duplication. Secondly, cut underperforming areas or outsource. Thirdly reduce workforce to meet demand. Compare this with Airservices. Streamline and reduce duplication. Essentially this is what Business Transformation was all about. Next, areas such as training and ops support have been sadly neglected for years or worse deliberately trimmed and in some cases excised entirely because they are expensive and essentially long term investments. Sadly that reduction in capacity shows immediately in improved bottom line but doesn’t begin to bite in real terms for a couple of years.

Recovering from this skill and knowledge shortfall may take years and in the mean time expose the system to unacceptably high levels of corporate and individual risk. Lastly look at the workforce. The ATC workforce, as an example has steadily declined over the past 10 years. To some extent this was expected with the recovery of additional numbers built up for TAAATS transition and technical advances. What is more worrisome is that modelling for numbers is being done on technologies not yet proven, or indeed in some cases existent. The same concerns occur across Airservices. Training decimated, technical support eroded each and every year as work is outsourced or simply left to failure rectification rather than scheduled maintenance.

The future in the eyes of the hierarchy is clear in board papers and ATC reform work streams. Things like generic endorsements, flexible airspace and consolidating staff into a single location where possible are all efficiency measures under development. Charging regimes are structured such that costs cannot increase to industry. The business is in position where it must effectively reduce costs for as long as it continues to operate. Eventually there will be no blood left in the stone. The dream machine continues to churn out ideas to address a future in which resources are reduced whilst efficiency and productivity (together with profitability) are maximised. Long term there appears to be only one possible outcome.

Clearly your voice through Civil Air will continue to have to be heard on these and the multitude of matters that come up each and every day in our work environment. So the agreement, whilst a vitally important matter for each of us employed under it, is but part of a much bigger and unfortunately unhappy picture. We will be seeking your advice on these issues and indeed your support in getting the work done. Ultimately we need to come to a working arrangement in which trust, honour, commitment and integrity are the hallmark of our work environment at all levels.

Robert Mason
President, Civil Air
19 April, 2009