Katherine Connelly talks to BA cabin crew union executive member Penny White about the campaign of lies and dirty tricks currently being waged by the company against striking workers.

When she opened the letter there was no pay at all on her BA wage slip – only her allowances from last month. Just a mistake, of course. Another cabin crew member rings the Union because they have not been paid for work they did before they went on strike. Another mistake?

These sorts of mistakes have happened a lot this week. “It’s trying to create as much panic and fear as possible,” BASSA (British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association) executive worker Penny White told Counterfire. “It’s an easy way of attacking people: people will think ‘I can’t afford for that to happen to me. I can’t afford to go on strike.’”

Creative accountancy has been practically reinvented by BA. Strike days have been deducted from pay, but so have breaks after long haul flights when the cabin crew would not be working. Staff sickness on strike days is now counted as going on strike. Cheaper flights for staff will be withdrawn for striking (or sick) workers, something many staff living in other countries rely on to get to work.

British Airways has also been creative in its boasts to the media about the weakness of the strike. BA boss, Willie Walsh, claims that 60% of the cabin crew have turned up to work and they have flown 75% of their passengers.

But, as Penny explains “You can never strike when you’re away from base. So a crew who are coming in on a Jumbo probably started work 4 days ago. A job can last up to 9 days. He’ll be including them in his figures.”

So desperate is BA that it has given work to competitors, including its arch-rival Ryanair, but Walsh would rather lose money to them than to his own workforce. Needless to say, in BA mathematics a flight operated by another airline with another airline’s crew is a flight courtesy of BA.

This is a dangerous game for Walsh to play. There is a limit to how much work he can give his competitors before his own company collapses. Although he can afford to do this while the strike only lasts a few days, he would be totally unable to sustain this if the union called an indefinite strike. This is why every union activist should be calling to make the strike ‘all-out’.

Workers are better at standing together than bosses. Rumours that the BA grounds staff are going to ballot for industrial action are so strong that Willie Walsh has already contacted the Swissport company about supplying scab labour.

Penny spoke yesterday to an enthusiastic meeting of the Communication Workers Union about the strike. The support on the picket lines has been obvious: “we’ve had lots of support from airport workers, postal workers and lorry drivers waving, shouting and tooting”.

This is the way to win. Solidarity is in everyone’s interests because if Walsh gets away with the attacks it will give confidence to Royal Mail and oil tanker bosses to attack their workers’ conditions and for BA to attack other sections of the workforce. Penny is clear this is only the start of the attacks: “This isn’t about a pay increase, it’s about hanging on to the union. Walsh is concerned about getting rid of the union so he can go on to push down pay, terms and conditions to the lowest possible denominator.”

This is why it is important that Unite the union (which incorporates BASSA’s members) co-ordinates further action with the RMT rail union, which is striking just after Easter.

Meanwhile BASSA has been doing some accounting of its own. From their work for BA, £750,000 is paid to Walsh. £100 million was wasted on the Terminal 5 fiasco. And then there are the fines – £350 million for price fixing, $203 million for the class action law suit settlement for fuel price fixing, $4.2 million in price fixing fines in Canada, £2.5 million for the same in Australia.

Penny sums it up very effectively: “BA is cheating, lying and losing us lots of money”.

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'.