British Airways has seized on the pandemic crisis to attack the terms and conditions of its entire workforce. Using the claim that they need to impose redundancies, they are attempting to fire and re-hire every BA worker.
Only weeks into the furlough scheme, with the state picking up almost the whole wage bill for BA staff, the company issued redundancy notices to 42,000 staff, with a deadline of 14 June to accept a wholescale change to their contracts and pay.
BA was one of the first companies to argue that the lockdown left them no choice but to cut jobs and wages. Unite, the main union in BA, has exposed this lie, pointing out the plan by International Airlines Group (BA’s holding company) to spend a billion on buying a Spanish airline, IAG’s £2.6 billion plus profit in 2019, and the average £446 million per year paid out in dividends.
In the good times money flows into profit and dividends but when things get tough it’s the workers who bear the cost. This sad truth is now being played out across the world economy.
BA has been planning this attack for over a decade. Willie Walsh (previously chief exec of BA and now chief exec of IAG) saw the pandemic as a golden opportunity to finish the attack he launched on BA workers in 2009. Since a dispute in 2010, BA management has been building a two tier workforce by only taking on new staff on worse terms and conditions than pre-2010 staff. This led to a long strike by those on the worse cabin crew contract in 2017.
As lockdown started, Walsh leaped into action, grabbing money from the Government to furlough the vast majority of staff with one hand, while issuing 42,000 redundancy notices with the other. The largest union, Unite, reacted by challenging the legality of redundancy consultation of staff who were furloughed, and there was a hiatus of several weeks.
It was a very difficult situation for workers. The vast majority were not at work. With a looming deadline of 14 June, the long-windedness of the legal process for an industrial action ballot made going for a legal strike inadequate; but with so few at work, even an unofficial walk out was impractical.
Unite launched a crisis “leverage campaign”, BABetrayal.com, in early May targeting corporate clients, partners and financiers of IAG. Small, targeted protests across the UK, Spain and even in New York, promoted by a social media campaign telling the truth about IAG’s wealth, have pushed MPs — even leading Tory MPs — to go on record against the actions of BA. The Tory-led Transport Select Committee that questioned Walsh called BA’s treatment of its workers a “national disgrace”.
The reaction amongst the public, in the press and in parliament has clearly worried a BA management looking for big bailouts. Willie Walsh scrapped the 14 June deadline in a radio interview.
Still, talks with the unions have not yet started, and the threat of “fire and rehire” on top of 12,000 redundancies remains. The BABetrayal.com leverage campaign has shown that despite the current very difficult circumstances, a fightback by the unions is possible.
That start needs to be built on, and the follow-up should include clear demands for social ownership of industries that insist on putting profits first even in a pandemic.