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A British Airway’s Boeing 777. Photo: Wikimedia/Mark Harkin

A British Airway’s Boeing 777. Photo: Wikimedia/Mark Harkin

Once again, it is workers uninhibited by tradition that have the most to teach us, reports Richard Allday the Angry Trucker

Despite the best efforts of aggressive management, a group of young, militant and underpaid workers are striking at the heart of one of Britain's biggest companies. The British Airways (BA) Mixed Fleet cabin crew is symbolic of the return of militancy and anger among the British working class. In taking action, they are confounding all the predictions made by employers and observers over the past few years.

The London Pride 2017 demonstration was large and lively, a magnificent celebration of diversity and resistance. Perhaps one of the clearest demonstrations of this was the presence of hundreds of striking Unite members of the British Airways Mixed Fleet cabin crew.

Back in the closing days of the Brown administration, and the early days of the Tory-Liberal coalition government, the British ruling class was cocky and exuberant in its opportunistic land-grab for using ‘austerity’ as a means of dismissing social democracy, and entrenching the neo-liberal politics and economics of Thatcherism. One result of this was the attempt by Willy Walsh, of British Airways, to break union organization in the national flag-carrier of British aviation.

A long and bitter dispute ended with BA having failed in its primary aim of smashing union organization. Unfortunately, the price paid was the reluctant acceptance by Unite membership, organized in Unite’s British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association branch (BASSA) that BA would introduce a 2-tier pay structure.

Existing (BASSA) staff would maintain their terms and condition (Ts & Cs), but new employees (organized in the Mixed Fleet branch) would be on far inferior Ts & Cs.

Despite the criticisms of some left observers of ‘a needless sell-out’, the members felt they had beaten off a determined attack on their union organization, and pointed out to BA management that what had been signed was not a ‘peace agreement’, but rather a temporary ceasefire.

This was not a threat, or face-saving rhetoric, but an attempt to get an obdurate management to understand that employing two groups of workers, to do the same job but on vastly different pay rates would inevitably lead to feelings of injustice and discrimination.

Differentials

This prediction has now returned, and bitten BA roundly on the bum. In the winter of last year, the Mixed Fleet membership (having recruited some 2,000 members to their Unite branch) balloted for strike action for an increase on their miserably low basic wake (approx. £12.5K p.a.), and for an increase in the rates for flying duties and other responsibilities. This enables the workers to upgrade their basic income to something resembling a living wage.

An overwhelmingly young and diverse workforce (the average age is below 30), they voted overwhelmingly to strike. This was despite warnings that the struggle would not be easy, that the employer was determined not to close the differentials, that they were not in the position of BASSA in 2010, when Unite commanded the support of the vast majority of cabin crew.

Come spring this year, although they had had some communication with BA, the employer was standing firm, convinced that 3 months of strikes without progress would sap the will of these young trades unionists. Moreover, BA was aware that (under the Tories new anti-union legislation) the legal protection given by the strike ballot would run out I the spring.

How they under-estimated these young workers! Faced with the need to re-ballot, they took this as a challenge and enthusiastically campaigned for a further round of strikes. They were boosted in this by the knowledge they had increased membership of their branch by half.

All the doom-mongers dire predictions, of futile protests, an obdurate management, the threat (and use) of sanctions, the assistance of other airlines in trying to break the strike (witness the ‘wet-leasing ‘of Qatari planes to BA, to cover for strike-bound BA craft), were acknowledged by Mixed Fleet members, but weighed in the balance of accepting injustice, the workers decisively voted for justice.

Pressure

There is no guarantee they will win, and they know it. But they also know two other facts – one is, that if they do not fight, they have no chance of righting the wrong. The second fact is, the fight would be made a lot easier, and the chances of success massively increased if BASSA threw their weight into the fight. Of course there is the matter of working round the anti-union laws, but the membership side with Mixed Fleet, they understand this is the same fight they fought seven years ago. It is for their elected leadership to translate their members’ feelings of solidarity into a practical strategy which will strengthen both groups of workers as they heal the split in the workforce which BA so clearly rely on.

For this to be a practical strategy it has to involve more than financial contributions to the Mixed Fleet hardship fund. There are legitimate grievances that BASSA can air with management, and which could lead to support in a ballot (pressure of work/disruption caused by BASSA members being expected to deal with the fall-out of the Mixed Fleet dispute comes to mind). Standing aside as sympathetic observers will only strengthen BA’s confidence in their ‘divide and rule’, and weaken both groups of workers defensive ability.

Many of Unite’s ground staff at Heathrow have made explicit their support, as have Unite’s industrial branches throughout London and Eastern region (as has the regional administration), but the message need s to be still further widened.

The best means of doing this is for the message to be carried by Mixed Fleet members themselves; they should be invited to directly address branch meetings and shop stewards meetings, to put their case. Obviously, the prime starting point is BASSA itself, followed by other Heathrow branches; but the principle stands good right across Unite, and the wider trade union movement.

This is an inspiring fight by a group of young workers motivated as much by a desire for fair treatment as monetary gain. They deserve our support. And in the process of winning, they can inspire a new generation to, as Shelley put it “rise like lions from their slumber”. This time - with luck - not to bite the employer on the bum, but to have them by the throat. 

Richard Allday

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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