British Airways dispute: abolish the anti-union laws!

Submitted by Matthew on 14 January, 2010 - 10:12 Author: Daniel Randall

In early December, cabin crew working for British Airways voted — by a huge majority on a massive turnout — for strike action against job cuts and pay freezes. BA management went to court and, eventually, they got an injunction against the strike. The union has now announced a further strike ballot starting on 21 January. But it is a cumbersome process — the earliest BA workers will be able to strike is from the beginning of March!

The December injunction was yet another example of how the law can be blatantly used against workers, squashing their “right” to strike.

The BA workers’ union, Unite, had drawn up a programme of 12 days of strike action over the Christmas period, specifically chosen to make sure that all cabin crew staff — who work on extended 12-day shift patterns — were mobilised.

A storm of abuse from all sections of the press followed, denouncing the workers as “selfish”, and accusing them of ruining Christmas. One particularly obscenely demagogic story attacked the workers for potentially ruining the Christmas holiday to New York of a woman terminally ill with cancer. Very little was said about the intransigence of British Airways bosses or the fact that they continued to draw enormous salaries even while they were running the company into the ground.

The bosses’ argument in court, which the judge accepted, was that some of the balloted workers had already accepted voluntary redundancy and so, should not be considered part of the bargaining unit. According to Britain’s restrictive trade union laws, unions must give employers full details, well in advance, of everyone they are planning to ballot. As BA, EDF and other bosses have shown, any slight irregularity (when dealing with tens of thousands of workers, as with BA cabin crew, that is almost unavoidable) will be seized upon by employers trying to have strikes ruled illegal.

In justifying her decision to grant BA bosses an injunction, judge Laura Cox’s argument focused on how a strike over the Christmas period would have caused maximum damage to BA’s business. The courts are ideologically “on side”, are with the bosses in the class war.

I spoke to John Usher, the Director of the United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Trade Union Laws (UCRATUL), about the case. This is what he had to say.

“It’s important to understand that there are two bits of litigation going on; one being the proceedings that the union brought in order to seek to prevent the changes to terms and conditions that the employer sought to impose unilaterally from coming into place. Separate to that was the employers’ application for an injunction in relation to the ballot for the strike designed to bring the employer to the table to negotiate properly.

“There’s nothing surprising in what BA did in seeking an injunction nor in the way the judges have interpreted the law. The United Campaign has consistently maintained that the existing UK law breaches international human rights obligations in relation to allowing freedom of association.

“As with Metrobus, when the employers sought an injunction earlier in the year, the result was a surprise to the union to some degree, because the employers’ lawyers pursued a novel approach to establishing that the union breached the UK’s laws. But making novel points in the context of the facts of a ballot and dispute is nothing new. There are more opportunities awaiting employers.

“The use of litigation by employers to defeat action that should be legal under international law has seen a steady increase over the decades since 1979. Whether bosses will decide to pursue litigation depends on the nature of the dispute; if you’re an employer taking proceedings within the context of an ongoing industrial dispute, it’s likely that you’ll make industrial relations worse. But [BA boss] Willie Walsh wants to hammer the union and use every means he’s got to undermine the union and undermine its relationship with its members.

“In the UK we not only have laws that do not provide fundamental freedoms and human rights but we have a system where the employer can apply for an injunction solely on the basis that there’s a ‘serious issue’; even a half-baked argument by the employer can lead to an injunction.

“It will definitely be the case that every time an organisation like BA gets away with this, it’ll encourage other employers to attempt to get away with it. The unions must challenge these laws wherever they can, including in the human rights arena, potentially in the European Court of Human Rights, but that route will take years. Meanwhile, we have to get the message across that there’s a clear breach of the UK’s human rights obligations leading to exploitation by the employers and increased poverty in the British Isles. We also have to avoid the laws being used to divide the members from the efforts of the union.

“What BA has put out is that the Virgin Atlantic cabin crew are on half the money of the BA workers. They are using UK law to cut the wage of their workers to £15,000 a year. Similarly, the Metrobus case was brought to defeat the union’s attempt to achieve equal pay for bus drivers in London in the face of the various employers undercutting each other in tenders by the only means at their disposal — cutting labour costs. Let us be in no doubt: we are fighting against a race to the bottom.”

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