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British Airways Plane

British Airways Plane / Photo: Pixabay

With 12,000 BA workers threatened, a united fightback would be a beacon of hope for the whole labour movement, argues Richard Allday

The crunch is fast approaching for 12,000 BA workers. The company’s plan for mass sackings are due to be put into effect next week, on August 7, which makes (Unite General Secretary) Len McCluskey’s message to BA, and separately to the Unite members affected, so significant. 

At first glance, BA workers are in a very weak position: how do you combat the threat to 12,000 workers, when up to 80% of them are furloughed, and therefore not at work? The strongest weapon we hold, as workers, is collective industrial action – the ability to strike; to withdraw the one part of the process from which the employer makes a profit – our labour power. But when we are already out of the workplace, through furlough, where does that leave us? 

Take a second, and broader look though, and the BA workforce still has considerable heft, and this perhaps goes a long way to explaining why the strongest weapon at our disposal is being deployed so (apparently) late in the day. Because the workers affected by BA’s hatchet job are not just the immediately visible, public, face of BA – the cabin crew. BA is intent on reducing labour costs across the board, not just at Heathrow (their largest operation by far), but at all the other airports they operate out of across the UK. This means Gatwick, Edinburgh, City of London etc. etc. 

It also means that it is not just cabin crew facing the onslaught. It involves ground staff, baggage handlers, customer service personnel, the administrative side of the operation – and the maintenance staff. 

For an industrial response to be effective, all these groups need to be working together; they face a common attack, and the most effective response needs to be a united one. This has meant raising the hard arguments among reps and members, that no-one can afford to ‘go it alone’, looking after their own patch, because if BA get away with their plans across the majority of the workforce, they can conduct ‘mopping up’ operations against any residual outposts at their leisure. 

This sense of collective resistance has had to be won against the odds – whole sections of the workforce who have traditionally regarded themselves as stand-alone units, able to look after their own affairs, have had to be persuaded that this fight is different. No one can afford to regard themselves as exempt from the outcome of this confrontation. 

It would have been difficult enough if Unite only had to win its members to this view; it is further complicated by the fact that they are not the only player in the game. The GMB union has significant numbers of members in BA’s land-side operations, and they are wracked by internal divisions in their union – a GS leaving, the rest of the senior leadership tarnished by the reason for his departure – which haven’t helped either. 

On top of this, the historical divisions left by the 2010 dispute, with the introduction of a two-tier workforce, obviously created its own problems. That dispute – a crude and brutal attempt by then CEO ‘wee Willy’ Walsh to smash the union and slash pay and conditions was beaten back by a determined and tenacious cabin crew workforce organized by BASSA (British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association). The eventual settlement meant BA withdrew its attack on existing pay and conditions – but with the acceptance by BASSA that new staff would be recruited on a different (and inferior) contract. The attack had been beaten back, but ground had been ceded. Nevertheless, BA’s attempt at union-busting had failed, and BASSA was (and still is) the largest branch in Unite, with over 8,000 members. 

As Counterfire predicted then, the battle was over but the war would continue. We said then that the new Mixed Fleet contracts would inevitably lead to the injustice bound to be felt when two groups of workers do the same job, but for different pay. And so it proved: Unite’s Mixed Fleet branch was founded, initially with only a few dozen members; it grew to over a thousand and launched its campaign for recognition and improved terms. That culminated in the successful strike action of 2018-19, and they now boast in excess of 3,000 members. 

So with all these subsidiary tensions to factor in, McCluskey’s message to all the relevant branches that ‘solidarity is crucial’ sends a very welcome message that the union thinks the central arguments have been won. He is well aware of the divisive strategies employed by BA – the new contract BA intends to impose on cabin crew represents, in the broad, little change for Mixed Fleet (MF) members, with as a bonus, a small increase in pay. Activists in MF are confident that this bribe will not be effective in weakening solidarity. 

Possibly those with the most leverage in this campaign though, are elements of the ground staff – and the maintenance workers. The maintenance workers, particularly the engineers, have the potential to ground the entire fleet. If (if) they stand firm with the rest of their BA co-workers, BA will have to sit down and talk. Of course BA will offer bribes and blandishments, sweet words and empty promises, anything to try to drive wedges between the different groups, but they are not guaranteed success. 

The legal and the leverage strategies employed by Unite have gained (possibly essential) time, but they are not, and cannot be, a substitute for the core strategy of organising the collective strength of workers in the workplace. This is where our industrial, economic, and political power is most clearly expressed. Likewise, the call for solidarity by McCluskey is crucial to the potential success of any campaign – but this solidarity is not limited to BA workers across the different job grades, or job types, or sites. It relies on workers seeing their common cause as workers, rather than particular grades, skill-sets – or citizenship. So seeing Unite’s public campaign changing its slogan from “BA: stop betraying Britain” to 

“BA: stop betraying your workers” places the dispute firmly in the arena of boss screwing workers, rather than a far more problematic argument about some spurious ‘national interest’. As such, it is a far more effective, and unifying slogan. 

I cannot predict who will win, but at least I know there are two horses in this race. And this race is important, for far more than the 12,000 workers involved. Heathrow (the main base of BA) provides, directly or indirectly, jobs for 180,000 workers. It is the largest workforce in Britain, possibly in Europe. A victory for the BA workers would send a message to every worker faced with a tin pot Dyson or Tim Martin that you don’t have to roll over; you don’t have to just accept the employer’s attack; there is an alternative. Don’t whinge, organise. 

As BASSA’s Facebook page puts it: “We fought in 2010. We’ll fight in 2020.”

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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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