Class War at BA: Solidarity not Legality

It is class war at BA. Unfortunately, on our side, the war is being lost because the Unite union calls the shots for the workers.

BA cabin crew, currently striking as we go to press, are under enormous pressure to cave in to the BA management’s demands for job and wage cuts. The capitalist press is constantly attacking them for refusing to see sense and bow to the inevitable or lose their jobs. And yet, until the last few years, this was a group of very non-militant workers. Today they keep on voting for strike action in massive numbers. No worker actively seeks out a strike for the sake of it; all strikes mean less money while the strike is going on, and threats and intimidations from bosses are generally increased. And so it has been with the BA dispute. When workers took banners to the picket lines saying “We have no choice”, it signalled the culmination of a series of provocations and intimidations by BA and its chief executive, Willie Walsh.

The dispute was triggered last November when BA reduced the number of cabin crew on long-haul flights and introduced a two-year pay freeze (in real terms a pay cut). BA plans to introduce contracts for new recruits, which would have meant they were paid significantly less than current staff. It also wanted to worsen the pay and conditions of newly promoted staff. This is not just about reducing current operating costs but also about plugging the massive hole in the massive BA pensions deficit.

A Load of Ballots

BA have prepared for this by already getting the baggage handlers and pilots to accept job cuts and worse conditions. By this they have isolated the largest section of workers, the cabin crew, who have turned out to be surprisingly resilient. As a result BA has used several tactics which are harbingers of what faces all workers in the months ahead. First has been going to the courts to break the workers’ resolve by trying to have their strikes declared illegal. In December a judge ruled that Unite’s strike ballot was invalid after it had included 11 members of staff who had accepted redundancy (when in all 7,482 voted for strike action, amounting to 81%!). The judge also argued that a strike at Christmas was “not in the public interest” so the strike was deemed illegal. This was in perfect conformity with the terms of the 1987 “anti-union” (in reality anti-strike) laws passed by Thatcher. These laws were based on those framed under Callaghan’s Labour Government before 1979. They were immediately endorsed by New Labour when it came to power in 1997. The whole idea is to make legal strikes virtually impossible. But this is a dangerous game for the bosses and they have to play it skilfully. No-one mentioned the law when the Lindsey oil refinery construction workers walked out despite this being a totally illegal wildcat strike. Why not? For the pragmatic reason that any attempt to use the law would have widened the solidarity action still further and led to even more contempt for the British state and its politicians. The lesson is plain. Play by the bosses rules and you will be stymied. Play by the rules of workers’ solidarity and the bosses will at least know they have a fight on their hands.

Currently, however, few workers are ready for this step. Taking legal action is thus increasingly being used as an anti-strike weapon, with judges, unsurprisingly, tending to favour employers. (In April, for instance, Network Rail was granted an injunction after it alleged discrepancies in the RMT’s strike ballot.) And since cabin crew are coming to an end of the action covered by the original ballot, another will have to be held before workers can continue to strike! 12 June marks twelve weeks since the first set of strikes took place. Anyone striking after that time can be legally sacked by BA (although in actual fact Britain is one of the few “advanced” countries where striking workers have no employment rights anyway and Walsh is preparing this step). Taking around five weeks to complete, the next ballot will probably have to centre round the issue of BA’s bullying tactics (since Unite can’t ballot on the same issue twice).

As the strike goes on, the more bitter it becomes. BA have not only spent a fortune hiring staff and planes from other airlines (who, like Michael Ryan want to see the wages of their own staff further reduced later) but have so far suspended more than 50 strikers (some for writing Facebook comments and sending private emails naming scabs) and have sacked 8 outright. A few years ago this group of workers developed the “sickie” approach to striking. Instead of saying they were on strike they got a doctor’s note. As a result workers who try to avoid crossing picket lines by calling in sick have been told that time off sick on strike days will be considered to be strike action and that they will face disciplinary action, and so far BA’s “health services” have overridden the word of the GPs involved in every instance. According to Unite, others have been targeted for discussions on union member only forums and some for views expressed in private conversations. One union rep has been issued with a legal document demanding to know the identities of crew members posting comments to his site under pseudonyms. Perhaps the most well publicised attack has been the removal of travel privileges from striking workers. Since up to 25% of cabin crew live abroad and rely on travel deals to get to work, this amounts to a very real attack on their standard of living.

Predictably enough, the media have almost universally lined up against the strikers, concentrating coverage for the most part on the inconvenience to the traveling public, breaking off now and then to point out how well paid BA workers are in comparison with other sectors of the industry in a period when BA are making losses (oddly enough none have concentrated on Willy Walsh’s pay packet of three quarters of a million pounds despite BA announcing a record annual loss last year of £531 millions). And of course, when they’re not doing this, they’re reporting how badly the strike is doing, and generally using BA’s own propaganda to do so. All workers, especially those in local government and in the public sector, will be faced with the same kind of propaganda in the months ahead as the cuts begin to create lower wages and less jobs.

Unite Trying to Divide

If BA strikers haven’t got enough to contend with, they also have their union, Unite, which is doing it’s bit to play the game of containment while talking up it’s militancy. Unite is fighting for what amounts to a 2% pay cut, and it has bent over backwards to make sure that the traveling public are inconvenienced as little as possible, its latest promise being no strikes during the World Cup. Far more damaging has been the tactic by the unions to settle each section of workers in the industry separately. Unite called off action by baggage handlers and ground crew in December after workers voted to strike following a pay freeze. Even this action only meant stopping work for a few hours a day. It is well used to playing the game of calling off strikes voted for by workers (as it did when it postponed strike action in 2009) and then starting a new ballot again, giving BA bosses a very handy breathing space. So it is with the current dispute. It has taken every opportunity to call it off and was even prepared to give up its original demands and send workers back on 23 May if Walsh agreed to reinstate travel concessions. Derek Simpson also told workers he thought that the unions’ tactic of calling a series of strikes over the Christmas holiday had been a mistake (as he worried it would turn public opinion against the strike). Under this logic nobody would ever walk out, no matter how badly provoked. Unite is now reduced to paying for half page adverts in national papers about “Brutish Airways” bullying and appealing to its shareholders that Walsh will ruin the airline. Meanwhile Balpa, the pilots’ union (whose chief negotiator was once a certain Willie Walsh), has been eager to distance itself from the current action. Even though it has an ongoing dispute with BA over holiday pay, it has made clear it wants nothing to do with the cabin crews’ strike. The tactic of divide and rule, ably abetted by the unions, has isolated the cabin crew within their own firm.

Workers at BA will never win as long as they accept the unions’ logic of divide and rule. It’s not just at BA that workers are fighting. Strikes in the air industry have taken place at Air France, Portuguese Airlines, Lufthansa and at Alitalia over recent months. Workers at Air India are continuing a wildcat strike following the sacking of 58 workers and the de-recognition of the two major unions. In a similar tale to BA, Air India was granted a High Court order to stop the strikes, and once it had started a programme of victimisation.

Choosing to Act Outside the Unions

So what choice do workers really have in pushing their action forward? BA workers do have some precedent in acting outside union control and winning their dispute. In 2007 they staged a series of unofficial strikes against the introduction of new time-keeping practices (this was the famous use of the “sickie” tactic). There was also secondary action by baggage handlers in support of the Gate Gourmet workers. But the whole course of this battle has been different. They are faced with a more kamikaze management in an industry which has a serious profits crisis. If they are to win this dispute they will need once again to act outside of the control of their unions and unite with workers internationally. If there’s one industry which lends itself to international solidarity it is surely this one, but on a national level also there is a lot of scope to widen the dispute. BT workers are also balloting for a strike, and since the newly elected Con-Lib coalition intends to drive through some £6.2bn in spending cuts, more strikes in the public sector will surely result.

Relying on the unions will only lead to workers being divided by industry and by trade, with unions tackling one area at a time, delaying action through drawn out ballots then ignoring the results and suspending strikes anyway. Or as in the case of the RMT winning a court case and then calling off the strike anyway. For BA workers to succeed they need to act outside the control of their union once again and link up within and across sectors by holding mass meetings to elect recallable delegates. As Marx noted in Value, Price and Profit

Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system" and instead of the conservative motto ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: ‘Abolition of the wages system’.

It may be 140 years since Marx wrote these words, but their relevance is still as sharp as ever. For the cabin crew at BA, the attacks they face are the same as those on workers the world over. The response of all workers, if they are to succeed in defending what they already have, must be a united one across all industries and all categories.


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