Monday, 22 March 2010

Further notes on scabs, propaganda, and right-wing demagogues

The British Airways dispute is now, it would seem, at the point of no return. BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh has told independent arbitrater ACAS that it will not put any deals back on the table, whilst the Unite union insists that strikes will continue if talks do not resume. With overseas unions backing Unite whilst the Government and media is behind BA, the situation seems irreconcilable.

Indeed, it looks very much like this is what BA want. Gregor Gall, a research professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire, tells us that this is part of a classic union-busting strategy;
It's shaping up to be a truly titanic battle. According to Unite, BA has told the independent conciliator, ACAS, that it will not put its offer back on the table. With this kind of approach and time running out, the strike is all but certain to go ahead this Saturday.

Why has BA done this? You'd think in the case of something close to mutually assured destruction, BA would seize upon the opportunity to avoid a damaging strike, especially when it's making huge losses.

Yet, here's the rub. Yes, BA will lose £100m in the strike, but the prize for it is much bigger. That prize is the decimation of Unite as a serious force in BA.

With Unite put in its place, BA will be able to instruct its cabin crew to do exactly as its wants.

It will say "jump" and the cabin crew will have no choice but to say "how high?" Then BA will be able to take part in the race to the bottom on wages and conditions alongside competitors such as Virgin.

For this plan to work, the strike must go ahead and the strike must be defeated. That is why BA has spent inordinate amounts on ways to break it and why it has spent months intimidating cabin crew out of striking.

It might also explain why BA has not sought an injunction again to stop the strike. Months of planning for the showdown would not lead to the outcome it wants if it won an injunction.

BA may even sense it has Unite on the run, given the union's willingness to look more favourably on a deal it rejected last week. Unite may feel on the run after being attacked by not just the Tories but by the party it funds.

In industrial relations jargon, this is a classic "reforming conflict". The employer engages in a set-piece showdown, inflicts a massive defeat on the union, divides the workforce and thus re-orders the power relations between management and union.

This should sound familiar if you cast your mind back over the many classic industrial disputes since 1979 – the miners, the printers, the Liverpool dockers, the firefighters and so on.

The employers, state or private, were backed politically by the governments of the day so that the workers and their unions became bĂȘte noires and the forces of the police and judiciary were ranged against them.

In many of these disputes you could find henchman as equally determined as BA's Willie Walsh.

These disputes were all serious defeats but does this historical pattern have to be continued in this present dispute? The omens are not good.

By law, employers have both time and opportunity to prepare to offset a strike's effect. That is why the anti-union laws require unions to give various advance notices of the action and who is taking it.

But Unite is the country's biggest union. It could, out of solidarity and self-interest, institute a £1 a week levy on its 1.4m members to show that it is prepared to bankroll a long strike.

Even though BA has huge cash reserves, facing a long strike is not in its game plan. A longer strike would allow Unite to get more political pressure put on BA as we get closer to the general election.

If Unite cannot pull such an ace out of its hand, BA will go back to the way it used to be run and the way many other companies are now run.

Lord King, appointed by Thatcher as BA chief to oversee preparations for its privatisation, was asked how he motivated his employees. He answered with just one word – "fear". That fear was fear of the dole.
Of course, the media have been quick to paint it the other way, and the Telegraph is amongst those quick to empower scabs;
The emails, posted late on Friday evening, were chillingly concise and their content clear: "If any of you go into work tomorrow, your life won't be worth living,'' one read.

Hours earlier, as the news spread among British Airways cabin crew that last ditch talks between the airline and the hard-line union Unite had failed, a tirade of malicious text messages had been fired off to specifically targeted staff – those brave enough to have voiced contempt for the union militants – telling them they were "scrum" [sic] and "scabs" if they crossed the picket line to begin their shifts on Saturday.

"Suzy" wasn't surprised when copies landed in her in-box and on her mobile phone.

Inside Heathrow, [Suzy] says, menace and unease are everywhere. When BA suggests a new service Unite generally instructs its members to ignore it.

"Ridiculous things,'' Suzy says. "We were asked to distribute hot towels on short haul. Unite said no. We got on board and everyone was in a state.

"Do we give them out or not? Usually workers—quite rightly—fear not doing what the boss asks. But we are just as frightened not to do what the union asks."
Of course, things such as this shouldn't happen. One of the greatest flaws of the mainstream unions is that they mirror businesses and corporations with their top-down power structure. True, these structures are more "democratic" than business hierarchies, but they remain a long way from the self-management ideal of anarcho-syndicalist unions such as the Solidarity Federation.

However, to go from this to the point of union bullying - or, in the words of "Mad" Mel Phillips, "Union Mafia" - is absurd fantasism. For all their faults, particularly the privilege that turns union leaders against working class interests, the unions can only act on campaigns with the assent of their members. It is not simply a case of arbitrary orders not to distribute hot towels, but of union committees deciding on a course of action based on the concerns and voting mandates of their members. That those without the slightest sense of class consciousness or class solidarity remain ignorant of the decisions made and the reasons why is their problem and nobody else's.

"Suzy" and her fellow scabs may be "glad to have a job in this climate," but they fail to recognise that this climate was caused by the bosses, whose intent is to make us as workers pay for it. Those who are "more than happy to work harder if crew numbers are reduced" are only facilitating the job losses of their colleagues in the employer's determined drive to cut costs without cutting privilege and profit at the top. There needs to be a greater effort to educate these people as to why they shouldn't scab for the bosses.

As part of that education, there needs to be a greater and more open debate about unions and union-organising. There needs to be criticism of union activities, union tactics, and - most importantly - union leaders. But such debate and criticism must come from the left.

From the right, the only purpose is to put across an argument entirely against working class organisation. We ought to accept our lot in life, as our evident betters reap massive rewards, and not complain when we come under attack. In fact, if we recognise that we have better conditions than another group of workers, we must engage them in a race to the bottom and let our hard-won rights be rolled back inch by inch. Anybody serious about fighting to improve the lot of the workers (from a moderate or a radical perspective) should be able to recognise such ideas as vaccuous bullshit in defence of privilege.

Contrary to Mad Mel and William Rees-Mogg, we are not seeing a return to the "sinister" and "militant" trade unionism of the seventies. In fact, as I have written previously, a thorough and honest analysis of the 1970s and early 80s finds the idea of Britain as "an economic basket- case and the laughing-stock of the world" to be a myth. It would be easy to win the argument with the rabid, foaming dogs of the right if only they did not have such a stranglehold on the media.

There is a long road ahead of us. Before we can seriously discuss the issue of worker organisation, we need to snap the Suzys of this world out of their Mad Mel-induced stupor. Smashing through the propaganda model of the media is integral to the class war.