British Airways deal: "employers have upper hand for now"

Submitted by Matthew on 18 May, 2011 - 12:32

An activist in BASSA, the section of the Unite union which covers BA cabin crew, spoke to Solidarity about the deal negotiated between the airline and union leaders which workers are now voting on.


There has been much debate in various forums about what is, and what is not, included in the deal.

As far as I know all those who have been subject to disciplinary action can have their cases reviewed by ACAS, and ACAS’s decision will be binding on BA. The only people who are outside this part of the deal will be the three people who have already had their employment tribunals (none of them have had an outcome yet).

I believe that one of the reasons that staff travel will be returned to everyone (should the deal be accepted) is because BA management know that punishing someone for taking legal industrial action is against the law and they are well aware that when the case to decide this comes to court, they would lose. Taking away staff travel had the desired effect in that it was one of the main reasons why many people did not go on strike. As far as [BA boss Willie] Walsh was concerned it was a case of act now and worry about the consequences later.

Many of those who were off sick during the strike were not paid, even though their sickness was entirely genuine. Walsh did not care about the legality of deducting pay, only that in the short term it would make it clear to those who were afraid to go on strike because of loss of earnings that they could not hide behind a sickness certificate. I believe that BA would eventually have been forced to pay all those who had genuine sickness certificates, and therefore a review of all these cases is part of the deal.

FACILITIES

Importantly, all the normal trade union facilities are to be reintroduced, i.e. union offices and de-rostered union reps [reps on facility time] to deal with the day to day problems.

This can only be a good thing and keep the door open for further negotiations in the future.

The imposition of reduced crewing levels on the aircraft and the new “Mixed Fleet” (on very low pay) has not changed.

If Mixed Fleet proves to be a success, then eventually all the work will go to them and the current crew will be out of a job.

The deal promises that work between the fleets will be spilt evenly, but it seems likely that Mixed Fleet will grow faster than the old fleets decline (through the take up of part-time contracts and natural wastage), and thus current crew will eventually be fighting over a much diminished access to work and will lose out financially as a result.

The only thing that can change this is if Mixed Fleet is a failure. Currently they are not anything like up to normal BA standards. The work load is punishing, and BA management themselves admit to finding it difficult to find the “talent” (their own words not mine) to work on this fleet.

Only time will tell. Guarantees have been given in the deal to “top up” the earnings of current crew if lack of work means they start to lose money. However many years ago we had a similar “money back guarantee” and this simply disappeared.

My gut feeling is that crew will accept this deal, because they accept that those who did not support the dispute at the beginning left the door open for BA to action all their plans. An all-out strike right at the start would have changed this; Walsh could not have kept the airline going with just his “volunteers”. This did not happen and now the crew just have to make the best of what we have.

If management can get everything they want from the low-paid cabin crew and their brand doesn’t suffer, then the new fleet will grow as fast as they can train the new recruits.

It is sad to think that a leading company like BA is happy to pay its frontline staff such low wages. Maybe the recession has paved the way for many companies to do likewise.

Overall, I think this was probably the best deal that could be achieved and one can only hope that changing times and conditions will improve the situation. For now, I feel employers have the upper hand.

I hope that other workers will learn from what has happened at BA. The union is only as strong as its members, and if they are not prepared to stick together and stand up for their rights, in the end they will suffer for it.

The ballot will run for four weeks so we should know the result by the middle of June.

Comments

Submitted by stuartjordan on Sun, 05/22/2011 - 23:50

Whilst scabbing inevitably weakens any strike, this explanation does not explain why the BA cabin crew's action has been such a dismal failure. In fact, the strike was very strong. It caused BA losses of around £150 million.

The strike failed not primarily for a lack of effective action but rather the union's lack of demands on the substantive issues, i.e. the introduction of a two-tier workforce with Mixed Fleet. The key demand of the dispute was "Please negotiate with us", which is no demand at all. Of course, if you are in an industrial dispute then it will probably end in some negotiations. But it is ridiculous to make the negotiation process the ultimate goal of your strike.

Without raising any specific demands around Mixed Fleet, BA management were able to shift the focus of the dispute from the substantive issues, to the right to strike itself. They launched a campaign of victimisation against all striking workers. The union went into retreat. Mixed Fleet was forgotten about and the dispute became a rearguard action to end the victimisation. In the desperate attempt to to convince the capitalist press that they were not "mindless militants", the union forgot to mention why they were on strike in the first place. After nearly 9 months of negotiations, the union has finally got a deal which has won nothing except to reverse the (probably illegal) victimisations.

Our BASSA activist is right: other workers must learn from the BA dispute. But the lesson is not simply to "stick together". We need to fight for our unions to raise demands around the substantive issues. Without this, the bosses walk all over us.