UPDATE: Strike dates have now been set for Saturday 20 March (for three days) and Saturday 27 March (for four days).
In an act which again defies right-wing mythology about workers being passive and unprepared to take action, cabin crew working for British Airways have voted by an overwhelming majority — on a huge turnout — to take strike action against proposed changes to their contract. 81% of workers voted to strike, on a turnout of nearly 80%.
This is the second time their union, Unite, has had to run the strike ballot. The first time round the figures were even higher, with over 90% of workers voting to strike. After BA bosses successfully used the High Court to have the strike ruled illegal (on the basis of a spurious technicality relating to the balloting process), it was inevitable that the dispute would lose some momentum. Given the circumstances it is impressive — and an indication of BA workers’ resolve — that support for the strike only dropped by 9%.
Unite has yet to name dates for action, and working out a concrete strategy to win the dispute must surely be a first priority for the union and its members. To ensure that the direction of the dispute is meaningfully controlled by cabin crew and not by (often unelected) full-time union officials, democratic strike committees with real power should be elected.
The dispute centres around issues such as a two-year wage freeze, 1,700 job cuts and changes to working hours that would effectively see cabin crew working longer for less. But it is also a very fundamental class battle that represents a challenge to the divine right of bosses to rule in the workplace no matter how incompetently or profligately they behave. It also has ecological implications, as the assertion of workers’ power in frontline, high-emissions industries such as aviation is ultimately the only way to reorganise and transition those industries in order to make them environmentally sustainable.
Even though not a single day of strike action has yet been taken, the significance of the dispute is highlighted by BA bosses’ use of every dirty trick in the book. As well as using draconian anti-union laws to have the first strike declared illegal, BA’s union-busting head-honcho Willie Walsh has also proudly boasted of his project to train scab workers in order to break the strike. Part of that project involved giving off-duty pilots training to work as stand-in cabin crew, a move that has been denounced by pilots’ union leaders. Jorg Handwerg, a pilot for Lufthansa and a rep for Vereinigung Cockpits (the union which organised Lufthansa pilots), said “Our struggle with Lufthansa will be reciprocated at BA. I call on all union members to support each other, rather than undermining the legitimate fight of another group of employees... I cannot imagine that pilots would be willing to work in the cabin to break a strike. As a union it does not look very fortunate if members of one union help breaking a strike against another one.”
When the strike dates are announced, working-class activists should begin urgently organising solidarity. Get down to the picket lines, invite a striking worker to your union branch or Trades Council, organise a meeting. We cannot let the right-wing media and the BA bosses be the only national voice on the dispute; the workers’ voices must be heard too.
Can environmental activists campaigning against the ecological destruction caused by the aviation industry make common cause with aviation workers taking action to defend jobs and pay, and if so, how? Solidarity spoke to Josh Moos, an activist involved in Plane Stupid, a direct-action network that targets aviation, about the issues and the plans for strike solidarity already being drawn up by climate movement activists living near Heathrow airport.
“The BA strike is important for a number of reasons. From an environmental point of view, the aviation industry is particularly destructive and unsustainable, so engaging workers around a workplace like Heathrow is really important in terms of opening a debate about that. It’s about building links and developing consciousness.
The strike is an opportunity to do that. But equally, Heathrow isn’t isolated; we’ve got to put it in the context of other workers’ struggles in frontline industries, whether that’s energy generation, transport, or others. We have to help to build some political interconnectedness between these struggles. Aviation is a difficult industry to try and engage with on many levels because the potentials for transition are much less obvious than they are with, say, a car factory or an armaments factory. There hasn’t been an awful lot done by the left and the environmental movement in terms of grappling with that difficulty, so we have to use the strike to start doing some of that work.
There is definitely a tension and potential contradiction between a worker-focused approach and direct action that targets a particular workplace or industry as a whole. There’s obviously a risk involved in that some forms of direct action could undermine the kind of work that Workers’ Climate Action does trying to engage with workers in frontline industries and their struggles. There’s no easy blueprint for how to resolve that tension but getting actively involved in supporting a strike is a good place to start; we have to learn by doing.
If we’re going to build targeted direct actions, we need to be conscious when we’re doing them. We need to have leaflets for workers that explain that they’re not the target, and we have to be aware of the dynamics within the workplace. Ultimately the only way to really resolve the potential contradiction is to have direct action led and built by the workers themselves.
If you look at something like the Swoop [a Climate Camp-organised protest targeting a coal-fired power station], how much better would it have been if we were looking at shutting down that power station through the action of the workers who worked in it rather than through the action of largely middle-class protestors? In terms of concrete plans for strike solidarity in and around Heathrow, everything’s at a fairly embryonic stage but there is a lot of potential. The Transition Heathrow group recently undertook a bit of a land-grab in Sipson; the space they’ve taken is very near the the airport. The timing of the take was deliberately intended to coincide with the strike, and there are plan to use the space in part, as an organising centre for solidarity. We want to run a kitchen out of the space so we can bring food and drink to picket lines. We also want to get BA workers to come down to the space; we’ve already had a lot of local people come and help out and we want to use it as a means to build links between workers at the airport and workers in the wider community around Heathrow.”