Whoever it was that said capitalism has reached the limits of ‘innovation’ should be asked to think again. We can be sure that in an effort to reduce the impact of the economic crisis on their own pockets, the capitalist classes and their teams of blue-sky thinkers will be cooking up ways to make workers pay for their excesses.
If proof be needed, just take a look at British Airways.
BA Chief Exec Willie Walsh is urging the airlines’ 30,000 workers to take a whole month’s pay ‘holiday’. In return for not being able to feed themselves, BA workers can play a part in their employers “survival” strategy. Willie, not one to make his workforce suffer alone, has agreed to forgo his salary for July – a measly £60,000.
Let’s be fair to BA for a moment and look at their plan: workers can either opt to lose an entire month’s wages in one swoop or spread the loss over a period of between three to six months. In return, they’ll help the company save £26 million in 2009 and hopefully secure jobs. BA is in a very competitive market-place, with increased fuel costs and low-budget rivals slashing prices. They have to do something, don’t they? The pilots union is urging its members to accept a deal that will see the loss in pay off-set by share offers. So this all looks fair and square, doesn’t it? Actually, no.
There’s more than one thing wrong with this offer, the most obvious being the staggering differentials in pay. Willie Walsh has enough stashed away from his £60,000 per month salary. Airline pilots, who earn in the region of £100,000 per year, can probably muster through. But workers on between £15,000 (which is what BA call-centre staff earn at the top end) and £20,000 cannot coast through a lean four weeks.
Even if the bulk of BA workers are offered and accept a similar share off-setting deal to the pilots, they are unlikely to get their money back. In the year to March 2009, BA investors made minus 32.6p per share (yes, that’s a negative number).
BALPA, the pilots’ unions, are recommending a phoney deal – a pay cut, in fact – to a relatively privileged section of the workforce. In doing so, they risk undermining other unions efforts to resist the deal. The GMB union which claims that “most members” will “consider” the offer. Hardly fighting talk.
If trade unions are to successfully resist the drive to cut wages and jobs, union leaders need to stop hypothecating about what members think and offer a strategy. The struggles at the Visteon plant and the recent action by engineering construction workers in the energy industry suggest what form that strategy should take.