Cancel your weekend jaunt to the Maldives SSY readers, those mindless militants have only gone and ruined everyone’s holiday – British Airways cabin crew are going ahead with strike action after the collapse of talks. The strike by BA workers was originally called last year, and was due to occur during Christmas/New Year. That strike was ruled illegal by a High Court because it was believed ex-BA workers would have been allowed a vote. This was despite the vote being won by a massive margin on a massive turnout, and the fact that no MP, MEP, Councillor or any other elected official is disqualified despite the potential of inaccurate electoral lists, and their mandate being far smaller than for the BA strike. The BA workers union, UNITE the largest union in the UK has rescheduled strikes for this weekend – but has itself also been dragged into a political storm.
After the Tories were exposed for taking money from a Lord who has not been paying tax in the UK, David Cameron believes he can deflect the criticism he has faced by attacking Labour for it’s links with UNITE. As the largest union in the country, UNITE has donated £11 million to the Labour Party, and sponsors hundreds of MP’s as well as providing assistance during election campaigns for Labour. The Tories are playing to their middle England base – the same base that was wooed by Blairism – that New Labour is over, and Labour has returned to its left wng trade union roots.
If only. If UNITE have Labour in its grip, they certainly aren’t squeezing where they should be. The only statements from the Labour government on the dispute have not been ones of support, nor even neutrality. Both Gordon Brown and Lord Adonis have attacked the strike, as bad for UNITE, BA and “the national interest”.
No Labour minister has spoke out on UNITE’s willingness to compromise. UNITE were willing to accept an offer put forward by BA and call off the strikes, but this offer was taken off the table by management. The unions members have already worked for free for a month, and have outlined the sacrifices they are prepared to make for BA. What the union is unprepared to do is to accept an imposed settlement from BA – one that freezes pay for 2 years and will reduce staff on flights. BA are also planning on introducing new terms for fresh staff, which will mean they will earn substantially less than current cabin crew. This will not only attack the wages of BA staff but reduce customer service on flights. BA say these changes are necessary due to the losses BA made last year, of £342 million. The unions desire to strike against this background has raised concerns from media pundits that the strike is suicidal. However a mix of Walshs cuts and union sacrifices means BA is sitting on £2 billion, enough to keep the company afloat despite strikes. Also, both BA management and the anti-union press and politicians did not appear to be very concerned for BA’s future when the company was fined a massive £270 million for price fixing. This criminality did not of course result in Walsh facing any threat to his job, despite the fact that without this fine BA would not have to make such cuts to staff and conditions.
The unions willingness to negotiate means nothing to Willie Walsh however, because it is becoming increasingly clear that the aim of the dispute for BA management is not simply enforcing changes to pay and staff, but to remove the unions influence and power. Willie Walsh himself was a former trade unionist from the Irish Airlines Pilots Association, so is aware of the power an organised workforce has. In a union magazine he is on record saying “A reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations”. Walsh upheld his motto well during his defection from union rep to managament in Aer Lingus. His management of the company was was disastrous for many of its staff – his lack of “reason” allowed him to go very far indeed.
In management at Aer Lingus Walsh attacked trade unions and slashed thousands of jobs. He was condemned by no other than Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, when he said that Walsh’s running of Aer Lingus was a time “when the management wanted to steal the assets for themselves through a management buy out, shafting staff interests”. When Bertie Ahern accuses you of being a dodgy spiv, he’s probably on to something given his own experience of being one himself.
Walsh’s plans are to maintain BA’s image as a “premium” airline, but without “premium” pay for the staff. His ultimate aim is to smash the UNITE union so he can downgrade pay to the levels present in Ryanair, Easyjet, Virgin etc, where the cabin crew earns substantially less. BA, the Tories and their allies in the press have made a hue and cry of the fact that BA wages for cabin crew are higher than in other airlines – but then again, the fares for BA are higher than these budget airlines. A more important point however is this – so what if BA cabin crew get more than budget airline equivalents? Ultimately, its the cabin crew (along with thousands of other workers) who keep BA going, not its shareholders or its management, with its incompetent criminal attempts to rig prices.
The facts are simple – if you are in a union, on average you will have better pay, better conditions, and increased job security. Those basic facts stand up against propaganda that trade unionism is like flares and disco music – best kept in the 70′s. Any reduction in BA workers conditions won’t improve wages for Ryanair cabin crew or customer service. All it will do is increase the profits for Willie Walsh and BA’s shareholders.