Labour History

Professionalism or Inter-Union Solidarity? Organising Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers, 1955–75

Labour History (2016), 110, (1), 35–56.


In a recent examination of modern-day “worker voice,” Peter Ackers argued that declining membership density should impel trade unions to disavow outdated radicalism, embracing instead more “responsible” relations with employers, the state and the public. In professionalism, he maintained, trade unions might find greater public legitimacy and increased membership, by focussing upon “bread and butter” issues and occupational identity.1In this historical case study, licensed aircraft maintenance engineers (LAMEs) did just this. They built an industrial strategy around the workplace power embodied in their licences and their regulatory oversight role within the maintenance labour process, claiming their technical expertise warranted greater professional recognition from operators. Rebuffing these overtures, some employers lobbied for regulatory changes that amounted to ill-disguised deskilling, in order to undermine growing industrial cohesion and confidence among engineers. Although the LAMEs’ campaign against the changes was mostly successful, we suggest that their focus on professional status ultimately weakened their industrial position by emphasising their distinctiveness at the expense of solidarity with other aviation unions. We posit this interpretation as a contributing factor in the industrial disunity that plagues contemporary aviation unions.

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*The authors would like to thankLabour History’stwo anonymous referees. Google Scholar

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14.LAMEs we interviewed often alluded to their responsibility to “supervise and certify” as a socially protective role. Indeed, the Association’s website proudly proclaims their members are “guardians of air safety.” ALAEA website, accessed April 2016, In the period under review, it was common practice for regulatory authorities to reinforce this sentiment. When apprentices completed their training, DCA representatives would visit the new licensee and formally present the new licence, complete with a motivational speech about holders’ heavy safety responsibilities. Former CASA official, interview with author, 8 July2011. Google Scholar

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26.Aircraft maintenance engineer licences in Australia numbered 3,278 in 1969, up from 2,553 in 1964.Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, no. 55(1969):412. ALAEA Minutes, 21 February 1957, ALAEA archive, Bexley. All ALAEA minutes are held at this archive. Briefly called the Society of Licensed Aircraft Engineers Australia (SLAEA), its rules, approved in May 1958, emphasised the professional nature of aircraft maintenance work; the degree to which specialised knowledge in the field should be protected and advanced; and the representational and consultative role that Association members might play, short of anything that might be portrayed as trade union activity. Rules, SLAEA, 1958, ALAEA archive. A conscious decision was taken to cover only licensed engineers. An early minute notes, “Once again, we wish to point out, our main aim is to improve the status of the Licensed Aircraft Engineer.” ALAEA Committee Meeting Minutes, 20 February1959. Google Scholar

27.Indeed, Bray argues that occupational segmentation is a defining feature of the aviation labour market.Bray, “The Limits of Enterprise Autonomy.” Google Scholar

28.John Alldis, Report to ALAEA Federal Conference, 1986, typescript in possession of authors. Re the registration case, the Sheetmetal Workers Union (SMWU) secretary allegedly reported to members that there were 26,000 SMWU members in Victoria, of whom only 120 or so were employed in the aviation industry and five were LAMEs. The official could not confirm whether these LAMEs exercised the privileges of their licences or not; ALAEA members’ newsletter (August1962):1, ALAEA archive. Google Scholar

29.John K. Galbraith, The New Industrial State(:Princeton1967), 13–41. Google Scholar

30.Author unknown, “A Thesis on the History of the ALAEA,”[c.1973], 5, ALAEA archive. Google Scholar

31.LAMEs desire for separate representation was swimming against a tide of increased tribunal frustration regarding the number of demarcation disputes between unions and ACTU promotion of union amalgamation. SeeMichael Kirby, “Present at the Creation: The Strange Eventful Birth of the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union,” Journal of Industrial Relations 56, no. 1(2014):123–45. Google Scholar

33. Aircraft Engineer 1, no. 6(April1968):3. Google Scholar

35.“Unions Urged to Boycott New Body,” Sun, 21 August1959. Career progression through the achievement of a licence was sometimes portrayed as evidence of workers getting above themselves. None of these divisions, however, should be regarded as skill-based or technical inevitabilities. Although common around the world, industrial unity across aviation occupations was also possible. For example, a successful 40-day strike at Boeing in the USA involved both professional and technical engineers who combined in one union to increase their bargaining power. SeeWoodruff Imberman, “Why Engineers Strike: The Boeing Story,” Business Horizons 44, no. 6(November/December, 2001):35–44. Google Scholar

36.These were the Sheet Metal Working, Agricultural Implement and Stove Making Industrial Union of Australia; the Amalgamated Engineering Union (Australian Section); the Australasian Society of Engineers; the Vehicle Builders’ Employees Federation of Australia; the Electrical Trades Union of Australia, and the Professional Radio Employees’ Institute of Australasia. Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission (CCAC), case no. 321, 1963. Google Scholar

37.Rimmer argued that the arbitration system initially encouraged new registrations to extend its purview, but subsequently sought to curb the plethora of organisations that gained coverage through s82 (later s142), which obstructed union registrations when workers could, in the Industrial Registrar’s opinion, “conveniently belong” to existing organisations.Malcolm Rimmer, “Long-Run Structural Change in Australian Trade Unionism,” Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society 23, no. 3(1981):326. Google Scholar

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40. Ibid., 570. Google Scholar

41.John Stackhouse, “Qantas’ Trial of Strength: An Industrial Relations Landmark?” Australian Financial Review, 20 January1971, file N176/16,NBAC. Google Scholar

42.See, for example,Ross Martin, “Australian Professional and White-Collar Unions,” Journal of Industrial Relations 5, no. 1(1965):93–102. Google Scholar

43.Kirby, “Present at the Creation,” 125. Google Scholar

44.John Alldis, interview with author, 11 June 2015. The Association’s Federal Executive did briefly consider merging with the more conservative Australasian Society of Engineers but, in the end, resolved to stay independent. A motion was passed, nonetheless, to authorise the Federal Secretary to pursue “industrial co-operation and the establishment of an alliance between the two organisations.” ALAEA Federal Executive Meeting Minutes, 27 February 1973. See alsoSaunders andLloyd, “Arbitration or Collaboration,” 123–44. Google Scholar

45. Commonwealth Arbitration Reports, no. 1375(1964). See also Conciliation and Arbitration Commission disputes case files, Aircraft Industry Award 1966, file numbers 1–47, box 2, 48–61, box 3, 62–92, box 4, B206 C1375/1964, National Archives of Australia, Melbourne. Google Scholar

46.John Alldis maintained that the counter logs and “time-wasting ploys” of other unions in this case had a detrimental effect on the outcome and the ALAEA. “The employers found unexpected allies in the other unions who had still not forgiven the Association for its successful registration and deliberately sought inspections at places like Perth, etc. to deplete the Association’s funds.” Alldis, Report to ALAEA Federal Conference, 5;Sheetmetal Worker Union Journal, no. 159(January1967):3. Google Scholar

48. Ibid. Google Scholar

49. Commonwealth Arbitration Reports, no. 1375(1964):419. Google Scholar

50.Ironically, it was the counter-logs submitted by the employers that had widened the dispute and made this outcome possible. Google Scholar

51.John Alldis, interview with author, 11 June2015. Google Scholar

52.The general secretary of the SMWU felt the gains made inAircraft Industry Award 1966were “quite spectacular,” especially in comparison to the modest gains made elsewhere in the metal trades;Sheetmetal Worker Union Journal, no. 160(April1967):8. He also wrote “In recent years, as a result of the united activity by most of the Unions involved in this important industry, a number of significant gains have been made.” In his view, the work value Inquiry had been a great success;Sheetmetal Worker Union Journal, no. 168(April1969):10. Google Scholar

57. Ibid. Google Scholar

58.Alldis, Report to ALAEA Federal Conference, 3. Google Scholar

59. Sheetmetal Worker Journal, no. 167(January1969):3–4. Google Scholar

60. Ibid. Google Scholar

61. Aircraft Engineer, 29 May1969. Google Scholar

62.Federal Executive Meeting Minutes, 21–22 August1974. Google Scholar

63.M. A. Johnston, “The Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers’ Association: An Enigma in the Age of Union Amalgamation”(BCom Honours thesis,Industrial Relations, UNSW, 1972), 32. Google Scholar

64.Federal Executive Meeting Minutes, 28th September1972. Google Scholar

65.While we cannot be definitive here, Coleman’s RAAF background (where he did his apprenticeship) was similar to that of a considerable number of members who may have seen his leadership as a “steady hand” against a more radical minority. Nonetheless, by the time he resigned from the executive in 1975, rank and file dissatisfaction had grown; a demand for a plebiscite about his position had been made. On shop committees, seeMalcolm Rimmer andPaul Sutcliffe “The Origins of Australian Workshop Organisation, 1918 to 1950,” Journal of Industrial Relations 23, no. 2(1981):216–39. See alsoMichael Quinlan “Immigrant Workers, Trade Union Organization and Industrial Strategy”(PhD diss.,University of Sydney, 1982), 207. Google Scholar

66.ALAEA Minutes, 27 Feb 1973. The minutes later confirmed that the affiliation request had been accepted. ALAEA Minutes, 27 June1973. Google Scholar

67.CCAC, case no. 1739, 1967, series B206, NAA, Melbourne. Google Scholar

68.John Alldis, interview with author, 16 January 2013. Mr Alldis was a member of the Association’s Licensing Sub-Committee at the time of these events. Google Scholar

70.Letter,D. G. Coleman toR. C. Cotton, 26 January1971, ALAEA archive. Google Scholar

71.Cotton was an economic rationalist before the term gained currency. Born in Broken Hill and trained as an accountant, he was a leading Liberal Party figure with a reputation for “number crunching.” In a “puff piece” about him in theDCA News 2, no. 8(1970):3, Cotton preached “value for money” in aviation expenditure, saying the task was to become “even more efficient than ever before.” Google Scholar

72.The second proposal was issued after airlines raised concerns, seeDCA, “Proposals for Changes in Aircraft Maintenance Engineer Licensing with Respect to Major Regular Public Transport Operators, Issue 2,”November1969, copy contained inALAEA, A Report on Proposals to Alter the System of Licensing Aircraft Maintenance Engineers and the System of Maintenance and Certification Authority in the Australian Aircraft Industry(,ALAEA, 1971), 31. Google Scholar

73.P. Langford, for Director-General of Civil Aviation, to DG Coleman, 16 April1971, ALAEA archive. Google Scholar

74.DCA, “Proposals for Changes,” 32. These moves were being replicated in the United Kingdom. The chairman of the Association of Licenced Aircraft Engineers in the UK reported to the Third Federal Conference of the ALAEA in Sydney that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and its member airlines were pressing for diminution of LAME responsibilities, using Australia and the UK as “testing grounds” because these countries were “traditionally strongholds” for LAMEs.A. Baines, “Approval for Maintenance: Its International Significance and the Involvement of IATA,”October1971, copy of speech in authors’ possession. Google Scholar

75.M. C. Cathcart, Association of Commercial Flying Organisations, explaining his frustration with the DCA to Coleman, 25 May1971, ALAEA archive. Google Scholar

76.Coleman toW. C. Taylor andScott, Solicitors, 19 March 1971, ALAEA archive. This countered ICAO Annex One stipulations, which specified knowledge and experience requirements for certification work and authorised licence holders to perform a socially protective role, even if it overrode short-term commercial imperatives. SeeICAO, Personnel Licensing;De Florio, Airworthiness. Google Scholar

77.DCA, “Proposals for Changes,” 27. Google Scholar

78. Ibid., 29. Google Scholar

79. Ibid. Google Scholar

80. Ibid., 28. Google Scholar

81. Ibid., 29. Google Scholar

82. Ibid., 30. Google Scholar

83.ALAEA, A Report on Proposals, 5. Google Scholar

84. Ibid., 22. Google Scholar

85. Ibid., 4. Google Scholar

86.Copy of telegram to“influential persons,”23 March1971, ALAEA archive. Google Scholar

87.Circular to Federal Executive members, 13 April1971, ALAEA archive. Google Scholar

89.Pamphlet, “Licensing Committee”box, ALAEA archive. Google Scholar

90. Ibid. Google Scholar

91. Ibid. Google Scholar

93. Hansard, House of Representatives, 11 June1970, available online at Google Scholar

94. Ibid., 28 October1970. Google Scholar

95. Hansard, Senate, 20 October1970. Google Scholar

96. Ibid., 20 May1971. Google Scholar

97. Ibid. Google Scholar

99. Ibid., 1. Google Scholar

101. Ibid.; ALAEA/DCA Conference, 8 and 9 November1971, 13. Google Scholar

102.ALAEA/DCA Conference, 8 and 9 November1971, 4. Google Scholar

103. Ibid., 5. Google Scholar

104. Ibid., 19. Google Scholar

105. Ibid., 15. Google Scholar

106.ALAEA/DCA Conference on Licensing, 18 and 19 November1971, 13. This is ironic, given the DCA’s proposal would have increased managerial pressure. From the UK experience, it was reported, “Sadly many Licenced Engineers have done so [refused to release aircraft] to their cost. The cases of [LAMEs] who have suffered dismissal or been passed over for promotion because they refused to compromise safety in order to be more accommodating to their employers, are all too common.”Baines, “Approval for Maintenance,” 2. Google Scholar

107.Alldis, Report to ALAEA Federal Conference, 5; ALAEA officials offered DCA a compromise whereby Maintenance Authorisations could be replaced with a limited licence; seeFederal Executive Minutes, 29 June1972. Google Scholar

108.John Alldis, unpublished typescript in possession of authors, c.2010, 3. Google Scholar

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Author details

Gregson, Sarah

Quinlan, Michael

Hampson, Ian