In Solidarity 3/204, a BASSA activist argues that scabbing and a lack of support were key reasons behind BA cabin crew workers not getting a better deal. Whilst scabbing inevitably weakens any strike, this does not explain why the BA cabin crew action has failed.
In fact, the strike was very strong. It caused BA losses of around £150 million. The strike failed mostly because of 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 was “Please negotiate with us”, which is no demand at all. Any dispute will involve negotiations, but it is ridiculous to make the negotiation process the ultimate goal.
Failure to raise any specific demands around Mixed Fleet allowed BA management to shift the focus onto to the right to strike itself.
BA launched a campaign of victimisation against all striking workers. The union went into retreat; the dispute became a rearguard action to end the victimisation. In the desperate attempt 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 nine months of negotiations, the union has finally got a deal which has won nothing except to reverse the (probably illegal) victimisations.
The recent controversy in the United United Left, in which SWP members were vociferously attacked by the UL leadership for “disloyalty” because they dared to criticise general secretary Len McCluskey’s handling of the dispute, is a distraction.
The SWP’s role in the dispute has certainly been shrill and unhelpful; their pointlessly disruptive stunt at ACAS negotiations alienated many workers, and simply denouncing the deal as a terrible sell-out fails to make a serious analysis of the current balance of forces or where workers’ consciousness is at. Their protestations about standing up for “freedom of speech on the left” are also hypocritical given their proclivity for silencing critics. But we must not allow an atmosphere to develop, in Unite or in any other union, where it is seen as “disloyalty to the union” to discuss the handling of disputes or criticise the leadership.
Given the policy recently passed by the Unite Executive committing the union to opposing all cuts, seeking coordinated industrial action and launching a serious fight within the Labour Party, now is the time for UL to be pushing for much more discussion, not less.
Solid, independent rank-and-file organisation (at BA and across Unite) could’ve provided a counterweight to the capitulatory attitude of some of Unite leaders in the BA dispute.
The BASSA comrade is right: other workers must learn from the BA dispute. But the lesson is not just 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.