A powerful multinational's attempt to break the Cabin Crew and their union BASSA has been beaten back - members voted 92% to accept a deal to end the strikes. Richard Allday looks at broader political significance of the British Airways dispute.
The vote by BASSA members, in their dispute with BA, has to be seen not just in the context of the open attempt by erstwhile BA boss Willie Walsh to smash trade union organisation in BA, but also the effect of any settlement on the wider class confidence of organised workers.
The cabin crew at BA have voted by more than 10 to 1 to accept the settlement negotiated between Unite and BA. Certainly, there are elements of the deal that stick in the craw of socialists (and many thousands of BASSA members who voted to accept the deal).
BA has got the two-tier workforce it wanted, and has won concessions on working practices that it has long objected to. It will save many millions of pounds in its operating costs, much of which will go straight into the bank accounts of people who would collapse at the very thought of doing a day’s work, fair or otherwise.
If these were the only issues in contention, then those who presented the deal as a rotten sell-out would have a compelling argument.
However, when you reflect that this was a blatant attempt to smash one of the strongest sections of organised labour in the industry, and to slash the terms and conditions of the workforce as the pay-off, you have to admit that the sheer doggedness of the resistance to BA by the cabin crew has clearly seen off the major threat.
Yes, there have been unpalatable concessions. Yes, BA has achieved a partial imposition of its aims. But the very scale of the votes by cabin crew, time after time - 93% for strike action, after all the management bullying, press slanders, and legal gerrymandering; and 92% for the eventual settlement; tell another story as well. That is, that by collective action, and collective resistance, they have withstood an assault by an extremely aggressive standard-bearer of the employing class, and remain with their organisation intact, and with the clear will to fight another day, when conditions permit.
In this, they have been helped to no small degree by the enthusiastic support from wide sections of the working class in Britain; collections taken up in workplaces round the country; donations from union branches; messages of support, and the physical demonstration of solidarity on their picket lines.
The clear message that they were not on their own, but that hundreds of thousands of fellow workers saw through the bosses’ lies, and stood with them, helped to strengthen their resolve, and through their bloody minded determination, they turned what could have been a rout for our side into a proof that solidarity can win.
Not all battles result in triumphant victories, but sometimes just holding the line can be as significant. That is why the BASSA reps who address the Coalition of Resistance conference on July 9th will be cheered to the rafters. Because they are the concrete proof of the old saying “If you fight, you may not win but if you don’t fight, you cannot win”.
Interview with striking Cabin Crew member last year
Does this mean that we should collapse into uncritical adulation, and that the strike was a pristine example of successful struggle, that the tactics were spot on, the strategy superb, and the union machine’s response was beyond reproach? Of course not!
Derek Simpson’s undermining of the strikers was a disgrace, and the fact that he was allowed to retire from his position as Joint General Secretary, instead of being kicked out in disgrace, is … ‘disappointing’ is too weak a word.
The interference of public-school-‘educated’ port-swilling pontificators in overturning the democratic decisions of trade union members remains a massive obstacle for our side, and the acceptance of their decisions by our officials continually serves to weaken our ability to resist. It was welcome, therefore, to see that the recent Unite Rules conference only narrowly voted to retain the rule that commits the Union to act only within the law. Despite the Executive Council actively opposing the amendment, 105 delegates voted to remove the obligation to act only “so far as may be lawful”, and were only defeated by 12 votes (105:117).
Likewise, the explicit attempt to kick the dispute into touch in the run-up to last year’s general election, for fear of embarrassing the Labour Party leadership in their desperate desire to achieve ‘respectability’ (‘respect’ and Rupert Murdoch; there’s a contradiction in terms, surely?). This only served to weaken the members’ confidence that the union put their interests first, and therefore their confidence that the union, at its highest level, was 100% committed to an active prosecution of their fight.
Here again, the membership may well be a step ahead of the bureaucracy: at the same Unite Rules conference, an amendment was proposed to delete the constitutional obligation for Unite to support the Labour Party, and only the Labour Party, as the sole political force to promote our interests. The shock on the faces of the executive when the vote was counted, a dead heat at 103:103 was only removed when they realised that, as the amendment was not carried, the current rule stood. But on shaky ground indeed; the structure may remain, but its foundations have been severely weakened.
In this respect, the cabin crew’s fight may have had more far-reaching effects on the development of the fight back against the bosses’ offensive, and the Con-Dem’s austerity plans, than they could ever have realised; and this has important lessons for socialists.
The first is, that we have a duty, if we claim to point the way forward, to be one step ahead of current struggle. We have to be able to not merely parrot what workers fighting back are already saying anyway, independent of us, but take the argument one stage further. It is not enough merely to say “This section of the class is fighting. We support them”. We have a responsibility to say how we think victory can best be achieved, and where that can lead.
BASSA rep Penny White addresses a meeting in solidarity with Greece, May 2010
Thus, I hope that BASSA will express their full support for the BALPA pilots at Virgin, and their strike vote, and in the process make BALPA realise how badly served their members were by some of the strike-breaking antics of pilots at BA.
Likewise, I fully expect BASSA to enthusiastically support those workers taking strike action on June 30th, in defence of their terms and conditions, thus returning some of the solidarity the cabin crew got from those self-same workers in their time of need. We need to resuscitate the concept of class solidarity, which can only strengthen each individual section of the class, by realising we all have an interest in standing together.
But secondly, if we hope to give a lead, we need to be only one step ahead. It would be fatal if, in our desire to transform this rotten, class-ridden rule of inequality, we allowed ourselves to fall into the trap of believing “we know best”, and promoted our ideals into abstract principles which cut us off from real people, and left us carping from the sidelines, that viewed every compromise (and every purely trade union struggle ends in a compromise, by definition) as ‘rotten’, without looking at the balance of forces, and the objective conditions.
That is why the Coalition of Resistance conference, on July 9th, is so important. It is one opportunity for socialists, trades union militants, and community activists to come together, and debate how to take forward each sectional, local, resistance to the attacks we face from our rulers, and argue to link up all those struggles, finding what we have in common, to create a mighty movement of resistance that, eventually will sweep away the Willy Walshs of this world, and allow us to start to create a better one.
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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