British Airways: uneasy truce in fight that deserved more

Submitted by Matthew on 29 June, 2011 - 12:56

British Airways cabin crew workers have voted overwhelmingly, by 92% on a 72% turnout, to accept a deal from management that restores an uneasy peace and ends a dispute which has seen nearly a month’s worth of strike action since 2009.

The deal represents some very real concessions from management which should not be dismissed or downplayed. It includes the complete restoration of staff travel allowances (a contractual “perk” without which many workers, deliberately recruited by BA from abroad because of their language skills, could not afford to actually get to work) which Willie Walsh abolished during the dispute as part of a sustained campaign of belligerent union busting aimed at breaking the morale of a well-organised workforce who had consistently turned out in large numbers to vote by large majorities for strikes. It is a real climbdown from Walsh, and one which he must have based on a desire to avoid further confrontation with a workforce whose actions have already cost him £150 million.

The massive majority by which the deal was endorsed must be seen as an indication of the war-weariness of most BA workers, and against such a backdrop any shrill cries of “sell out!” or demands for further strikes would only appear as ultra-left posturing without any appreciation for the realities of the industrial situation. But the inescapable bottom-line fact of the deal is that Walsh’s scheme (variously referred to as “new fleet” or “mixed fleet”, and based on significant cuts to staffing levels, pay freezes and the establishment of a two-tier workforce within the company), the very thing against which the dispute was launched in the first place, will be introduced in more-or-less the form that Walsh wanted in the first place. While the reversal of some of the attacks suffered during the course of the campaign is real and significant, the final balance sheet of the dispute must conclude that it is a defeat for the workers.

Could that defeat have been avoided? Certainly by the time the final deal was put on the table it was difficult to see how things could’ve been turned around.

The campaign was conducted defensively at least from early 2011 (when the last round of strike ballots was conducted, specifically over the issue of travel allowance rather than the initial cuts), and in practice from a long time before that. The terrain of the dispute had shifted so fundamentally away from the issue of Walsh’s project and onto the removal of travel allowance that it was hard to see it being shifted back. On that terrain, the workers have landed a blow. But if the tone of the strike had been more “offensive” from the get-go (picket line placards and union propaganda struck a consistently conciliatory and apologetic note, hardly likely to leave the belligerent Walsh quaking in his boots), and if the union had explored the possibilities for expanding the dispute to other sections of the BA workforce, and the wider workforce at Heathrow, the main hub of the strikes, then things might have turned out differently.

All of that is speculation now. What we can say concretely is that the dispute has two real lessons — one positive and one negative. Positively, it shows that workers who are prepared to take strike action and remain resolute, even in the face of a union-busting management, can win things. The restoration of travel allowance is a concession forced from management and without their history of massive strike votes and solid action behind them it would not have been won. Strike action does get the goods.

But the negative lesson is that a dispute fought on an entirely defensive basis, with little or no concrete demands, gives management the upper hand from day one.

The cabin crew workers, so keen to let people know that they “weren’t militants”, have in many ways distinguished themselves in this dispute, and deserved more.

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