The success of the strike action in aviation proves our side can win when it is organised and confident, argues Richard Allday
The current pilots’ strike, and the recent strike votes among BA cabin crew and Heathrow ground staff – from baggage handlers to firefighters – which have won an offer of 11.5% over three years, may be an indication that the decade-long scourge of austerity has caused large groups of workers to push back. The airline industry seems to have acted as a significant pole of attraction for this reaction.
It's not just BA and Heathrow – Unite members at Gatwick were part of the ballots, and responded just as emphatically as their Heathrow counterparts. Unite has won recognition at Eddie Stobart’s Southend Airport, and security staff at Luton Airport are engaged in a protracted strike for a proper increase to their poverty wages.
Indeed, Unite claims that it has run more industrial action ballots over the past year than all other TUC affiliated unions put together. Very often, these do not make headlines, as in many cases employers faced with large strike votes in a ballot finally smell the coffee and enter seriously into negotiations. It may be, also, that now employers realise that Unite is serious in backing members in dispute – the union now pays strike pay at the rate of £50 a day, and has amassed a strike fund in excess of £30 million – there is a reappraisal of what constitutes a reasonable offer.
Despite the level of strike pay that Unite offers, it is still the case that where employers do stick their heels in (and Luton Airport and Bromley Council come to mind) there is still the need for financial and moral support to maintain morale – and pay the bills. Unite activists and officers believe that the Bromley Council and Luton Security strikes are being driven by employers for ideological reasons.
In the case of the all-out strike in by library workers in Bromley, it is because the Tory council is wedded to the Tory philosophy of privatising anything that moves, and if it doesn’t move, flog it off anyway, just to be on the safe side. In the case of Luton, it appears to be more of a conscious decision to be bloody minded, that the union has forced too many concessions from management, as Unite has successfully unionised fresh sections of part-time, zero hours and precarious workers.
It is certainly true that a lot of the press headlines have been about Unite, and specifically around aviation (back to our traditional practice of holding holiday makers to ransom etc.), but this obscures some serious points.
The latest reports do confirm that Unite has notified employers of the intention to ballot for industrial action more times in the last year than all the other TUC affiliated unions combined. This is partly due to Unite being the biggest general union in the UK and Ireland - Unison and Unite account for nearly a third of the total trade union membership in these countries – and has the largest proportion of members outside the public sector, therefore more ‘bargaining units’, and therefore more potential for local disputes.
It is also partly due to the open commitment of the union to being a member-led, fighting back and organising union (Unite’s June Rules conference voted overwhelmingly to make promoting collective bargaining as ‘the most effective’ way of protecting workers’ interests a constitutional obligation on officers and reps – a decisive rebuttal of ‘business unionism’).
One consequence of this has been the union’s strategic concentration on building sectoral organisation – bringing reps from across different employers, but in the same sector, to discuss common approaches. The employers want reps to buy into the ‘loyalty’ con, that the route to better wages is competitive success of the employer, thus fragmenting solidarity. Unite’s policy is to bring the reps together to establish common standards and goals, to deliver ‘best practice’. This has undoubtedly been key to the London and Eastern Region’s emphasis on getting the activists in the Heathrow complex, and across Civil Aviation in the region, to establish a common strategy. Which is why Heathrow firefighters, baggage handlers, Mixed Fleet cabin crew, alongside BASSA, in-flight caterers, ground staff and booking clerks etc. were all balloting at the same time.
The consequence of this was that section after section returned handsome majorities for strike action, confident they were part of a much larger collective. And is reflected by BA’s offer of 11.5% over three years to air crew and maintenance staff, and HAL (Heathrow Airport Ltd) offering improved terms to their staff.
So far, so good. But every action stimulates a reaction, and there is every prospect that the employers, needled by increasing confidence and militancy on our side, may reflect, industrially, the increasingly right wing nature of their class’s party - the Tories – and start to adopt the Luton Airport strategy rather than the Heathrow one. In which case, Unite’s commitment to being a lay member-led union (reflected in its support for the Corbyn project) may become a very significant factor in how the current Johnson clusterfuck plays itself out.
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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