On 27 June, NATS, the UK’s main provider of air traffic services, received notification of rejection of the pay deals offered to two sections of its workforce.
Prospect ATSS, which represents engineers, and PCS, the union for operational assistants and administrative grades, returned ballots rejecting their offers by 88% and 79% majorities respectively, on turnouts of over 75%. The offers made consisted of 4% for year one (Jan 2011), followed by RPI capped at 4.5% in year 2, with significant strings attached for both groups.
The third section of NATS’ workforce, air traffic controllers, voted to accept their RPI+ deal through their separate and distinct branch of Prospect, the ATCOs Branch.
The NATS Trade Union Side (NTUS) entered negotiations in May 2010 united in their aim for an RPI+ deal across the board in light of the real-terms cuts their members received over the previous two years of profit. NATS management made an early derisory offer, which they insisted could only be bettered through negotiating “efficiencies” with each union independently, and so separate bargaining began.
When the offers were presented, the Prospect ATSS and PCS executives recommended rejection, with Prospect ATCOs standing alone in favour of their deal. In the run-up to the ballot, NATS announced a dividend of £42.5m. Talk of ATCO protest votes in solidarity with their colleagues was bandied around on an internet bulletin board, and workers discussed the disparity between the offers freely. Meanwhile, management explained the “pressures on the business” and the “wider economic climate” that prevented them from providing an adequate rise for their workforce.
Within five days of the ballot results, the workers’ anger and frustration intensified with the publication of the Annual Report. NATS reported a pre-tax profit of £106.1m, a significant improvement on the £78.3m for 2009/10 despite the loss of revenue associated with last April’s volcanic ash cloud. They have managed to reduce their staff costs from £382m to £357m through a carefully planned program of redundancies. Delegates at one of the union conferences stated that some areas are so short-staffed that overtime is being hard-rostered, and in other areas work is being consolidated into smaller and smaller teams without regrading.
Union reps at airports, air traffic centres and in offices around the country are now preparing members’ briefings to decide what industrial action to take, on a timeline that could see disruption to services in the summer.
The vast majority of members in NATS will have never taken any such action before, so their blossoming militancy will need guidance from those connected to the wider labour movement.
What their leaderships must now do is stay in touch with the shifting perspectives of their members and develop and provide the industrial strategy they will need to win.