British Airways cabin crew: resisting union busting

Submitted by Matthew on 18 March, 2010 - 2:23 Author: A BASSA Cabin Crew Member

Morale is getting quite low amongst cabin crew workers. They’re being bombarded by emails and phonecalls from managers, as well as being denounced by senior politicians in the press.

People who are off sick are being told they’re not going to be paid. One member is off sick waiting to have an operation and he’s now been told he may not be paid if he’s off sick when the strike is on. Management are trying every intimidatory tactic they can think of.

People are disgusted by BA’s scab-herding. They feel betrayed by the pilots, who’re supposed to be our colleagues. There’s a protocol on most airlines called CRM (Crew Resource Management), which is about all grades of workers — pilots, cabin crew and everyone else — working together to make sure flights are safe and efficient. We feel that’s being disregarded by pilots and volunteer cabin crew who’ve agreed to work to break our strike.

The trouble with BA is that everyone is fighting their own corner. There’s a lot of sectionalism in the company, with different grades doing deals with management as long as they get their own issues taken care of. There are some exceptions, though; ground crew such as check-in staff haven’t done any deals with management and the baggage handlers have stayed very solid.

Willie Walsh’s project is fundamentally about union-busting. The core of his argument seems to be that if a job can be done for £10,000 a year, then why would anyone pay any more? But a job done for a lower salary will be done to a lower standard.

We want people to have careers as stewards; we don’t want it to be another low-paid, casual job with a transient workforce. British Airways has always had an experienced workforce made up of people who’ve come into the job at a young age and been able to stay in it, building up skills and experience. That isn’t the same on other airlines where pay and conditions are worse. The workforce on other airlines is effectively a casualised, de-skilled workforce.

Walsh’s long-term aim is to start something he calls “New Fleet”, which will entail a new tier of workers doing the job our members do now, but on an entirely different set of pay and conditions. He wants to gradually move all the work over to “New Fleet”.

Cabin crew workers are paid a basic wage and then supplements on top of that when we actually fly abroad. On “New Fleet” the basic wage will be a lot lower, but as that’s where all the work will be, people will feel pressured into moving over to those pay and conditions.

The national leadership of Unite have more-or-less accepted the premise of “New Fleet”. They seem to be saying that it’s inevitable. BASSA has proposed some cost-saving measures, but fundamentally we want to resist the introduction of “New Fleet”. Our members aren’t going to sit here and let that happen. What is represents is an indication by management that they no longer consult with workers or their unions — they just do whatever they want. That’s Mr. Walsh’s modus operandi.

Walsh wants people to be flying as fast as possible, for the smallest amount of money, in the most unregulated way. He wants to ability to change people’s rosters at any time.

That’s a system that already exists in some airlines. In the American airlines, for example, junior cabin crew are on permanent standby and only get fixed rosters when they’ve attained a certain level of seniority. Willie Walsh wants BA cabin crew to work in that way too. He’s a manager who announced way back in his career that he intended to break the unions in British Airways. We’re facing bosses who are totally ruthless.

In the face of such a ruthless management, any and all support from the wider workers’ movement is welcome. Even something as simple as an email and phonecall to our office to let us know people are on our side is encouraging. There will be picket lines at the big airports, but the law is so restrictive about picketing that it’s difficult to discuss precise plans or ways people can support the pickets.

The argument of the attacks on us in the media has been that it’s unfair or greedy for BA workers to be paid so much more than, say, Ryanair workers — particularly in a time of recession. But that’s the wrong way of looking at it; the question isn’t “why should BA workers be paid so much?”, it’s “why should Ryanair workers be paid so little?”

We should fight for an across-the-board levelling-up rather than allowing bosses to drag us down to the level of the lowest-paid and worst-treated. Willie Walsh gets paid more than any other CEO of any other airline, but he wants frontline workers’ pay to be as low as possible. Why should we all be forced onto the lowest rung while the people at the top coin in the cash?

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