British Airways Boeing 747-400. Photo: WIkipedia British Airways Boeing 747-400. Photo: WIkipedia

The Mixed Fleet will surely come back stronger, writes Richard Allday

The first day of August sees the end of the 14-day strike called by British Airways’ Mixed Fleet cabin crew. The next day will see the start of a new 14-day strike by the Mixed Fleet Unite members.

The strikes are in protest at the gig economy wages, and gig economy work rotas that BA imposes on its Mixed Fleet cabin crew. One of their central grievances is the blatant injustice of their employer expecting them to work alongside cabin crew on pre-2010 contracts, doing the same job for, in some cases, less than half the money. Mixed Fleet cabin crew starting salary is only just over £12,000 pa.

The pre-2010 cabin crew (organized in Unite’s BASSA branch)had to fight a long and very bitter battle with BA – not just to preserve their terms and conditions, but to preserve the right to have the union of their choice recognized by the employer. There were those in the labour movement at the time who said they were Luddites, flying in the face of reality; that BA was facing fierce competition from budget airlines, that it could not afford to pay premium wages; that the union (Unite) was spoiling for a fight that it could not win.

The workforce pointed to the immense cash reserves and profits of BA; pointed out that cutting their terms and conditions to match the Ryan Airs and Easy Jets would just lead to another round of wage-cutting by BA’s rivals; and pointed to evidence that far from Unite seeking a fight, it was BA’s CEO Willy Walsh who sought the fight to break the union.

How times have changed! BA announced at the start of this dispute (in winter last year!) that it could not afford to commit to closing the pay gap – it would be ‘uncompetitive’. Its parent company (International Airlines Group – IAG) announced (on Friday last week) a 40% rise in profits for the half- year so far, to 975 million euros. BA’s profits alone are 742 million euros, (and that is with the disastrous computer shutdown at the start of the summer).

Another similarity with the 2010 strike is BA’s bullying attitude to staff who dare to stick by their union. Back then, BA removed strikers’ travel concessions – knowing that a high proportion of their staff lived outside the UK (BA is, after all, an international airline) and relied on this concession to get to work. BA in 2017 has removed what it refers to as ‘bonuses’ (and the crew refer to as allowances) which the low-paid Mixed Fleet rely on to make up their poverty wages.

Back in 2010, Willy Walsh relied on his ‘competitors’ to throw BA a lifeline in terms of providing substitute travel for BA’s otherwise strike-bound travellers; in 2017 BA relies on Qatar Airline to provide cheap leased airliners – complete with Qatari cabin crew – to provide cover for otherwise strikebound passengers.

Back in 2010, BA relied on ersatz cabin crew, recruited from their air-crew to scab on BASSA’s strike, but it failed to weaken the strikers’ resolve. This time, unfortunately, BA need not rely on scabs from the aircrew, because BASSA members, on far superior terms and conditions, are working normally. Many of them are deeply conflicted over this, but the advice they are receiving from BASSA officials is that to refuse rostered duties would be ‘unlawful action’, and they cannot ballot to come out in solidarity because they are not involved in the dispute. This is short-sighted at best, as anyone with a brain knows a defeat for Mixed Fleet would mean open season on BASSA; and it cannot be beyond the wit of BASSA’s leadership to find a genuine cause for ballot. It must be said that the current Tory laws mean the timescale for entering the fray may make it pointless now, but sometimes it is necessary to put down a marker.

Plus ca change as the old song has it. Back in 2010, BA’s cabin crew backed their union, and got a result. Yes, they had to accept the introduction of a 2-tier workforce, but they forced BA to treat with them collectively, through their chosen union. So Walsh’s union-busting did not work. This time round, all of BA’s intimidation and ‘hardball’ negotiations have not only not worked, they have backfired. Over 1,000 Mixed Fleet cabin crew have joined Unite since the action started, and the numbers voting against continuing strike action have fallen, so it is obvious that Mixed Fleet activists are winning the battle for hearts and minds.

It is also the case that BA’s tactics are backfiring in another way. They figured a young (the average age of Mixed Fleet cabin crew is under 30) workforce, whose ability to improve their earnings is reliant on bonuses dispensed by management, and with little history of organisation behind them, who have grown up with the gig economy as normal, this workforce would wilt and capitulate.

Instead, they have found that with many Mixed Fleet members having second jobs – as a necessity because of BA’s appalling wages – the strikers are far more resilient than the employer expected. Moreover, with Unite having paid out nigh on £2M in strike pay so far, they are confident their union is behind them. And it’s summer, and the sun is shining, and they are (as has been pointed out) a very young workforce

Sooner or later, the dispute will end. It is hard to see how the strikers can bend BA to their will, with a significant part of the workforce still maintaining a service; but it is equally hard to see the strikers accepting discriminatory employment practices ad infinitum.

I suspect there will be a compromise that both sides can live with. But I am absolutely confident that Mixed Fleet will come back stronger, hopefully spreading the message of solidarity among the other airlines as well. As Unite’s Regional secretary Peter Kavanagh pointed out to a recent rally of Mixed Fleet strikers: “I have heard it said that you are the future of trades unionism in this country. I am pleased to say I disagree: you are not the future, you are the present.” And what a present.  

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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