Thursday, 11 March 2010

Strikes at British Airways are long overdue

Today, BBC News reports that "union leaders representing British Airways cabin crew will meet later to decide whether to call strike dates." At the end of February, they had said that "negotiations are certainly ongoing" and they did "not want to create any sense that we are not serious about negotiating." Now, however, talks with management have apparently "broken down." This is nothing less than an extremely delayed reaction from union leaders.

Unite and the British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA) have had an overwhelming mandate for strike action since the 22nd February. "78.77% of the 11,691 ballot papers issued were returned. Of those 80.7% (7,482) supported taking action with 1,789 voting against it." This after the previous ballot was ruled unlawful in a clear case of the judiciary helping the bosses erode the rights of workers.

All this occurred, as WSWS reported in depth, in the context of BA management openly admitting that they had no intention of arbitrating with the union;
While the union claims that conciliation is possible, the airline is pressing ahead with its plans to shed a further 4,900 jobs in addition to the 1,000 already lost, as part of its £80 million cost-cutting drive.


It threatened, “We will not allow Unite to ruin this company. Should a strike take place, we will do everything we can to protect our customers’ travel plans as far as possible.”

BA has been training staff to act as strikebreakers in the event of industrial action. According to Ken Abard, an official of the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA—a section of Unite), BA has established the Professional Cabin Crew Council as a scab union and suspended 20 employees on charges of gross misconduct for criticising the company on Facebook.


Through pay freezes and other cost-cutting measures, the company returned a £25 million profit for the last three months of 2009. It now intends to push this further.
But, more than this, the union itself has been undermining the position of its members;
Unite has already made a series of concessions to management. Last year, it proposed a major package of “negotiated efficiencies,” with Unite National Secretary for Aviation Steve Turner pledging that until an “upturn in the global economy,” the union “will work with the company on the introduction of temporary measures aimed at ensuring stability and security of employment for our members and their families.” The union’s proposals included a company-wide deferral of the pay award due for 2009/2010 and “headcount efficiencies.”

BA rejected the union’s presentation of these concessions as “temporary” exigencies that could be repaid in the future. As far as BA is concerned, there is to be no future payback in return for supposedly “shared” sacrifices.
Perhaps the fact that this issue has been raised is what forced union leaders to reconsider strike action. More likely, it is the fact that few now are blind to the continual attacks being made upon the working class in the name of "austerity," and even the most concilliatory union could not get away with ignoring that fact.

Whatever the reason, it now seems likely that there will be some kind of strike action in the future. The latest news, at the time of writing, is that although "officials from Unite spent the day locked in internal discussions," they "have kept the airline waiting for any decisions on strikes after again holding back from announcing dates for industrial action." Nonetheless, they plan to "hold a consultative ballot among thousands of BA ground services staff, including baggage handlers, over new contracts" and "if union members voted in favour, there would then be an industrial action ballot, although this is weeks away."

But the momentum from before Christmas may already be lost.

Of course, BA workers should not vote against the strike, as any failure to act at this point would only be the final surrender to management. However there needs to be a recognition that, thanks to bureaucratic ditherings, action is long overdue. In order to hold out any hope of securing a victory, something truly spectacular will be required.