There is more to the British Airways strike than media headlines reveal. It is the first all-out strike by cabin crew for 13 years. This time the vote for strike action by cabin crew – not noted for militancy –saw 9,000 members out of the 11,000 balloted backing strike action in the row over staffing cuts and proposed changes to working conditions - an unprecedented percentage. Clearly staff were sufficiently enraged by the bullying tactics of BA management and the drastic implications of the proposed cuts that they saw no alternative to strike action.
BA’s share price soared last Friday, despite the strike announcement. Clearly the establishment is convinced BA and its pit-bull, Willie Walsh, will win and the union will be defeated.
On the first day of the strike BA maintained that half of staff had reported for duty, however, Unite insisted that 80% of its 11,000 members supported the first day of this three-day walkout. Walsh described the industrial action as ‘another cold-blooded threat’ to the holiday plans of their passengers. He attacked Unite, claiming they were ‘militant activists’ who had ‘cynically misled’ and coerced the company’s staff, who are among the highest paid in the industry.
BA suffered a loss before tax of £342m for the nine months to the end of December 2009 and says it needs to cut costs in order to survive, but this could have been achieved by negotiation. The Unite negotiating team lent over backwards to find a compromise and were willing to consider a range of options, including a two-year pay freeze, a partial repeal of staffing reductions on flights and an agreement to create a ‘new fleet’. Why did BA put an offer on the table which the unions were prepared to consider, only to then withdraw it?
Walsh’s deliberately aggressive and provocative stance vis a vis the union’s conciliatory attitude seems to indicate a deliberate attempt to provoke a strike. One has to ask why he wasn’t prepared to compromise. BA will be losing even more millions over this period and will hardly lead to an improvement of its already precarious financial situation, unless it is able to smash the union.
The last thing the new Labour government wanted so soon before a general election is a strike like this, and it has done everything it can behind the scenes to avoid it. The strike is likely to rebound on New Labour and will only benefit the Tories. That’s why Brown and his courtiers have done all they can to ensure it didn’t happen, but they failed.
Walsh seems the perfect man to take on the unions; he is the archetypal shop steward promoted to foreman. He became a pilot at Irish flag-carrier Aer Lingus, and during his time there acted as chief negotiator for the Irish Airline Pilots Association (IALPA) and was quoted at the time as saying that ‘a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations’. He is now putting that credo into practice and clearly wishes to outdo his Irish compatriot, loud-mouthed union-basher-in-chief, Michael O'Leary of Ryan Air.
BA's management has not faced up to the consequences of cut-throat competition among airlines and Walsh now wants to ensure that the unions take the blame. With imaginative and co-operative policies it could have carried the workforce and their unions with it. Walsh, though, is attempting to conceal this failing behind his crude anti-union strategy.
Governments too need to face up to the consequences of a completely de-regulated airline system. A fight to the bottom is taking place, resulting in underpaid and under-trained staff, overworked pilots and cabin crew with potentially serious repercussions for passenger safety, comfort and service. Governments need to recognise the crisis facing all airlines and work towards an internationally-agreed and more rational regulatory system embracing pricing, environmental issues, passengers' needs and a closer co-operation between all who work for the airlines and their unions. There are obvious parallels here with what has taken place in the financial world.
The establishment media have gleefully recycled the old headlines about too much union power and the unions bank-rolling the Labour Party. You’d think we were back in the seventies when the unions still had considerable power. Despite Thatcher’s union-shackling legislation still in place and the unions jumping through all the hoops of a regulated ballot and still winning a massive turnout and yes vote, a new round of union bashing is firmly on the agenda.
There may not be a conspiracy, it may be just fateful co-incidence, but with the recession showing little sign of improvement, and a determination by both main parties to impose cuts and wage-freezes, a militant trade union movement is the last thing either wants. Giving Unite a bloody nose at this time would send a strong signal to others, just as Thatcher’s defeat of the miners did in 1984.