Counterfire exclusive: As Labour and Tory leaders attack the strikes we report on the plans being laid by workers to support the action, and how you can show solidarity.

BA cabin crews strike meeting

On 20th March Unite union members of British Airways’ cabin crew will strike to stop savage cuts to their pay, conditions and the service they offer to customers. Once again, the economic crisis is wheeled out as the excuse to demand the lowest paid workers in the company are the ones to make all the sacrifices.

The starting salary for BA cabin crew is just £11,000 and BA itself is keen to warn any naive job applicants that this is not the luxurious job of their dreams; the work entails ‘an exhausting and disorientating lifestyle that places tough demands on family and social commitments.’ [1]

The job demands maximum flexibility every day, making any personal plans very difficult.

One cabin crew worker speaking on the Unite the Union website, who also has to rely on Working Tax Credits, exposes the irony that “most [BA cabin crew] all have second jobs in order to pay our bills and to be able to work for what is one of the biggest companies in the UK”.[2]

BA intends to cut 1,700 jobs (thereby also increasing the workload for remaining staff), impose a two-year wage freeze, and create a second-tier workforce on even worse pay and conditions. Every employer who wants to make their workers pay the price for the crisis will be looking at this dispute.

BA has proudly announced that it will use scab labour to break the strike – which also shows scant regard for the safety of its customers. BA’s chief executive, Willie Walsh, has a notorious history of attacking workers. After 9/11 many people might have considered cabin crew brave people for continuing to work in the new target of choice for terrorist attacks. Every time they got up to go to work they must have wondered and hoped.

What was Walsh thinking about? He was worried that the attack had put people off air travel and responded by cutting the jobs of over a third of his staff whilst Chief Executive of Aer Lingus. Protests resulted not in negotiations but in a 3 day lockout.

Just months after Walsh was hired at BA the Gate Gourmet dispute began, when poorly paid, mainly Asian workers, stood up to the airline’s catering company intent on slashing their pay and conditions.

The advent of the economic crisis resulted in Walsh’s most audacious demand in June 2009 when he asked his staff to work for free! For Walsh there really is no bottom line, workers should try to live on nothing to bail out the rich. This is why he has to be stopped.

Who abuses who?

The Tories and the right-wing press have been unable to conceal their glee that the Union undertaking industrial action also gives millions of pounds every year to the Labour Party – 3.5 million in the last year alone.

Conservative Party Chairman, Eric Pickles, believes Unite has ‘an unprecedented grip’ on the Labour Party. According to the Guardian, Michael Gove, the shadow children’s secretary, believes that the Labour Party has changed since 1997, it is now ‘more willing to engage in class-war politics, more likely to select activists with union links as candidates, more dependent on union money and more restraint to public service reform’.[3]

Does this really sound like the Labour government we have come to know so well – the government on a collision course with the PCS union members for attacking their contractual rights and pensions, the government desperate to privatise everything in sight? No, of course not. But in a Parliament hostile to working-class people, the idea that you might represent them there is a good insult.

The government are playing the game too – they are desperate to show that they are not on the side of the workers. Transport secretary, Lord Adonis, has said he “absolutely deplored” the strike. Brown has clarified in case that is too ambiguous:

“it is the wrong time, it is unjustified, it is deplorable. We should not have a strike. It is not in the company’s interest, it is not in the workers’ interest and it is certainly not in the national interest”.

Unite’s relationship to the Labour Party is like that of an abused partner who feels pressurised to hand over their wages whilst getting punched in the face on a regular basis.

It is best to get out of such abusive relationships. The £3.5 million Unite donates to Labour would be better spent supporting workers fighting union-hating, multinational companies.

Teamster rebellion?

The BA strikers are facing a political attack from strike-breaking BA and from the Labour government desperate to be seen to condemn them at least as much as the Tories. The strike will have to be decisive – both Heathrow and Gatwick must grind to a halt.

Unite are currently in talks with the Teamsters in America about the solidarity they might be able to offer. It is a creative move, but they should look for solidarity here as well which could smash the anti-union laws and bring a swift victory to the strike. Richard Allday, Chair of the London and Eastern Region Road Transport Industrial Sector Committee explains the lessons that can be learnt:

“In the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute of 2009 the “unlawful” solidarity shown by workers at other refineries in the UK meant the real possibility of Heathrow coming to a halt in 24 hours. With the BA dispute, the planes still need the same fuel to fly. This is the strength of trade union solidarity. The power the refinery workers have over Heathrow is also enjoyed by the tanker drivers over Gatwick. They share the same union banner, let’s see them Unite in practice”.

Counterfire has learnt from senior Union sources that stewards are being consulted at BP’s subsidiaries, which supply Gatwick airport, about ways in which they can assist in furthering the dispute. This is exactly the right action to take.

Officers of Region One of Unite have put out this message to reps and activists:

“We urge activists to go to the strike Headquarters commencing this Saturday 6am. The HQ is 5 minutes walk away at Bedfont Football Club ground (Near Hatton Cross tube). Please make every effort to encourage regional activists to attend.”

If BA win it will send a message to every employer that the time is ripe to destroy all the gains that the unions have fought for. Pay and conditions everywhere will be under attack and we will be forced to pay for the crisis. Willie Walsh’s vision of Britain is not one we want to live in. That is why solidarity is so crucial in this dispute.

Every worker, activist and student should be passing resolutions of support and sending messages of solidarity.


[1] accessed 17/03/10




Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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