Stuart Jordan outlines the key issues in the British Airways cabin crew dispute.
What’s the strike about?
The crux of the dispute is the 1948 Redeployment Agreement, which says that wages and consequently pensions can never be cut.
Back in October, in order to address the company’s £600 million losses this year and its £3.7 billion pension fund deficit, BA sought ways of ripping up the redeployment agreement. Their first strategy was to tell staff that a new deal on their terms and conditions was a fait accompli.
In a letter, dated 27 October, from Unite national officer Steve Turner to BA negotiator Tony McCarthy, Turner said:
“Recent communications from Bill Francis [head of inflight customer experience at BA] in particular have explicitly stated that new redeployment arrangements have been agreed with the trade union national officers.
“This is not true, you know it is not true and I expect you to put the record straight immediately. As you are very well aware, the national officers have no agreement with you on changes to the British Airways Redeployment Agreement.”
Unite have responded to this unilateral action by demanding that BA come to the negotiating table. In fact, this appears to be the sole demand of the strike, “negotiation not imposition”.
The striking workers have not raised any concrete demands over their terms and conditions or the terms and conditions of future workers. The strikers’ bottom-line demands are left entirely up to union negotiators; but before the strike had even begun the union had agreed that members would increase pension contributions from 8 to 13.5%.
“We offered a pay cut” was one slogan emblazoned across their Unite placards on the first day of the strike.
Yet even these concessions have not satisfied BA management. Instead the focus of the dispute has shifted to New Fleet — a company within a company where BA want to employ workers on separate terms and conditions. New Fleet is understood by both sides as a project to create a two-tier workforce, where new employees will have worst pay, precarious contracts and whatever else management can squeeze out of the talks.
Unite’s “please negotiate with us” demand is actually an acceptance of the principle of a two-tier workforce. Tony Woodley confirmed this in an interview with the BBC where he stated that he knew New Fleet had to go ahead but just wanted the union to be talked to about it and negotiate a fair deal. This stance will undermine union organisation. It is likely the number of workers on the second tier will grow at the cost of the better paid top-tier. Cabin crew basic rate is quite low, and they are given a top-up for different flights that they go on. It is likely that the New Fleet will take the best paid flight (e.g. Tokyo and New York), thus siphoning workers into the second tier.
Cabin crew should organise mass meetings to formulate positive demands and reject any deal to impose a two-tier workforce.
Many capitalist firms are using the spectre of economic crisis to try and impose austerity measures on their workforce.
However, BA also has plans for a lucrative merger with Spanish airline Iberia. This deal was set up in November 2009, and Iberia’s executive board were expected to announce the merger on Thursday 24 March. However, the business pages have fallen silent and it looks like any deal will be postponed until they know the outcome of the strike.
Iberia were looking for some reassurances that they will not be burdened with BA’s £3.7 billion pensions deficit. When the merger was first raised in November 2009, Iberia included a clause that allowed them to pull out of the deal if the pensions deficit was not sorted.
Despite this get-out clause, the Iberia bosses are treading carefully, suggesting that confidence in the capitalist camp is far from solid. Also, from the period when Unite announced the strike to 24 March, share prices increased 22 per cent. Investors are not only hoping to make a windfall from the merger but are also signalling a vote of confidence in Walsh’s handling of the dispute. The lack of a merger deal on 24 March may see investor confidence drop and BA thrown into real financial difficulty.
If this happens then the workers must move quickly to demand nationalisation and fight for maximum workers’ control. Walsh’s mismanagement and the profligacy of shareholders has caused these problems, not the wealth-creating efforts of the workforce.
The mood on the picket line
Having been battered in the mainstream press, harassed and bullied by management, workers seem to be slowly rebuilding their confidence and resolve.
Despite the hostile coverage, solidarity is coming in from all sides. One worker told Solidarity: “I was flying into Heathrow late last night [during the strike period] and the mood was terrible — everyone thought I was a scab!” A tubeworker at the local station commented: “It’s good to see them standing up for themselves. I’ve been on the Tube 25 years and learnt that unless you take regular action, management walk all over you. We’ve got our own problems coming up. Expect we’ll be all be out soon!”
Pickets on Saturday 27 March were brought solidarity greetings from trade unionists in Iberia airlines and there are low-level murmurings about various bits and pieces of unofficial action taking place across the world against scab planes.
The high level of victimisation and bullying is no doubt part of their well-planned union-busting strategy. Many workers are facing disciplinaries for the most irrelevant misdemeanours.
Fifteen workers have been suspended for talking about BA on Facebook — some of these workers were suspended for simply receiving messages.
Striking workers have also been told they have lost their ID90s, which entitle them to 90% off travel with BA. Many workers on long-term sick have not been paid for strike days. Workers who are mid-flight or overseas when a strike begins have not been paid for their work on the way home.
Workers also have also been denied the right to real pickets — instead, the British Airport Authority has designated various bits of pavement around Heathrow where no more than 14 workers can gather and demonstrate.
Some of these actions are probably illegal. However, the response over the weekend suggests these attacks have only furthered workers’ anger and resolve. “You can stick your ID90s up your arse!” has replaced “Willie, Willie, Willie, out, out, out!” as the favoured chant.
For the time being, the cabin crew are going back to work. The Unite leadership have said that there will be no more action until after the Easter holidays (14 April).
Cabin crew need to ensure that their negotiators do not negotiate away all their hard won terms and conditions or sell-out future workers. They need to assert what Marx called “the political-economy of the working class” — the idea that capitalist profit is created in the long hours of the working-day, not in the board meetings of the idle rich.
If BA is suffering from the economic crisis, who should pay? The workers who have created multi-billion profits since 1987 or the shareholders and executives who pocketed the money?
Solidarity is strength! Rank-and-file — take control! Spread the action, link up the disputes!
Workers’ Climate Action have been busy trying to get environmental activists to the picket lines.
Climate Campers have been engaged in many years of conflict with Heathrow airport and often find themselves on opposing side to the workers in the industry. This dispute offers an opportunity to build links with workers in the industry.
Workers, the environment: one struggle
Workers’ Climate Action are trying to establish a new environmentalism based on class struggle and workers’ control.
Carbon emissions are produced everyday in our workplaces — workplaces where we sell our time and follow orders. We believe that these workplaces need to be taken under democratic control, where working-class communities can decide how best to use the Earth’s resources. Only by seizing democratic control of the environment can we hope to avert climate change and best contain its worst consequences.
Workers’ Climate Action have been busy at the picket lines trying to engage workers with ideas of working-class environmentalism.
Basing ourselves in at Grow Heathrow — a squatted community centre in Sipson where activists are mobilising resistance to the Third Runway — we have been offering our solidarity.
Many cabin crew had understood environmental issues. Many were furious that planes were being flown empty around the world to create space at the airport.
Another told Solidarity that a while ago cabin crew had been collecting all the foil tins and cans from in-flight meals into bags and donated them to charities for recycling. But BA had put an end to this practice because it was “BA property”.
We need to run our workplaces in a democratic way and decide collectively what we produce and how we produce it.
This is a difficult conversation to have with workers in high emissions industries. But one rep seemed to be getting the idea: “Willie Walsh is viciously seeking profit wherever he can, especially through New Fleet and airport expansion, hopefully both; for this he needs break the union.”
Workers’ Climate Action will continue to mobilise environmentalists to support the strike.