BA plane BA flight from Heathrow, January 2020. Photo: Steve Lynes

British Airways has cynically taken money to keep their workers’ jobs secure but has used the opportunity to attack them instead, reports John Westmoreland

“BA has paid out billions to shareholders and is taking taxpayers’ money. This is nothing more than a cynical act of corporate greed and a betrayal of the BA workforce and Britain.” - Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite the union

There is widespread disgust at BA’s cynical use of the Covid-19 crisis to boost their profits. BA took all the government money it could get to furlough workers and protect their jobs.

“Don’t worry. Your jobs are safe.” BA told their workforce. “We have £9 billion in the bank.”

Now BA have betrayed their staff using a ‘firing and rehiring’ strategy that will hit the majority of its 42,000 strong workforce. Up to 12,000 jobs will go and those that are re-employed will return on lower pay and worse conditions.

Unite’s campaign against BA’s callous disregard for its staff has received support from an array of public figures that includes MPs, including Keir Starmer, broadcasters such as Piers Morgan, and trade union leaders.

Leverage strategy

Unite is faced with trying to exert its power to resist BA when much of the workforce is furloughed and picketing and demonstrating is made difficult due to the added Covid-19 restrictions. Tactics have included banner drops, banner illuminations (including a very effective one in Westminster), and demonstrations.

The leverage campaign is aimed at undercutting the support of BA’s investors and backers through mounting public pressure.

On Tuesday (June 23) Unite members and campaigners staged a demonstration at Edinburgh Airport and the Scottish Parliament against British Airways’ plans for job cuts.

BA intends to close its CityFlyer base at Edinburgh Airport which operates short-haul flights to London City Airport. 

Last week Unite executive officer, Sharon Graham, met with 37 equity and credit analysts with an interest in BA owner IAG to try and persuade them that the current BA strategy is bad for business. She told her audience:

“British Airways’ project ‘fire and rehire’ will damage the previously trusted BA brand. IAG’s restructuring of British Airways is a high risk gamble.

The airline is in need of short-term financial support not permanent cuts to terms and conditions. BA has not accounted for inevitable losses as a result of their actions, or communicated the risks involved to investors. No other airline has used the current crisis to attack workers’ terms and conditions in the way BA have. 

There are clear alternative solutions that BA is just not taking. It is more proof that BA’s drastic cuts do not stack up.” 

Spread the campaign

An attempt to win the argument about the best way forward for business, whose entire objective is profit, has to be backed up with meaningful action. Despite the Covid crisis more ways have to be found to bring to the table the energy and anger of mass mobilisation.

This is a difficult time for the Tories who have presented their tax payer gifts to the bosses as all in the national interest.

Rishi Sunak started off the transfer of wealth to those who already have too much with a £350 billion business bailout in March. And he is a giver that keeps on giving. But the Tory promise has been that bailing out business is the key to saving jobs.

Unite are taking the Tory claims apart with some success.

The union is asking members and supporters to urge their MPs to sign a pledge to pressure the government into withdrawing the favourable landing slots granted to BA at Heathrow. BA’s legacy or “grandfather” rights to these slots are very lucrative to BA’s operation. 

Tory MPs might hide behind their usual ‘what’s best for business is good for the country as a whole’ bluster. But BA is acting in the opposite way to what the Tories have defined as the national interest. They are therefore, in terms of their own patriotic propaganda, betraying the nation as well as their employees.

The Conservative chairman of the Transport Select Committee, Huw Merriman, described the airline’s behaviour as “ethically outrageous”. He told the Commons it is “effectively sacking its entire 42,000 workforce and replacing it with 30,000 jobs on inferior terms”.

And Parliament’s cross-party Transport Committee has called BA’s strategy a, “calculated attempt to take advantage of the pandemic.”

Keir Starmer has condemned the company too, saying

“The conduct of British Airways in particular has been appalling, threatening tens of thousands of workers with redundancy at the peak of the crisis. The Government was too slow to respond to the health crisis and now it risks being too slow in responding to the jobs crisis. Ministers must act now and deliver a robust plan to protect this vital part of the economy.”

The BA campaign is a test case for the Labour movement. The lobbying needs to be backed up by the organised pressure of workers and activists across the country. The working class as a whole needs to see that they have a stake in the outcome of this dispute.

The Covid-19 crisis has given workers the confidence to feel that they are the essential component in the economy. The any bail out of the aviation industry neess to be connected to a wider vision for the economy and the environmental impacts future aviation will have.

Richard Burgon MP has spoken of the need for a socialist solution to the crisis, one involving putting workers’ interests and a planned economic recovery first. This is how the broader support that is needed to win the BA Betrayal campaign can be reached.

But crucially, BA workers cannot be left to face this nightmare alone. As one BA worker has put it:

“BA staff feel they are being treated as sacrificial lambs. We just want some respect. BA is abusing the trust, not only of its employees but of the nation. They are treating the people that made them this great airline like dirt. I’m a single parent. I’m considering how I get through this without losing my home. It is ethically outrageous. Immoral. Staff feel abandoned, betrayed, blackmailed.”

Exactly right. Human need has to come before the profits of BA.

Unite is making clear demands of BA:

1Withdraw the Section 188 redundancy notice and threat of dismissal

2Negotiate in good faith with Unite

3Agree for any proposed changes to pay, terms and conditions to be temporary and to be returned in line with increased revenue

Every activist, trade union and campaigning organisation needs to hook up with the Unite campaign. This involves an email lobby of our MPs getting solidarity from our trade unions and planning activist days when we swamp BA on social media.

Let’s get on a war footing. Every blow we strike against BA will be felt in the corridors of power.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.