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British airways plane. Photo: Pexels / Public Domain

British airways plane. Photo: Pexels / Public Domain

The offer British Airways has offered its workers is an opportunistic smash and grab on terms and conditions and should be rejected, argues Richard Allday 

The news this week that BA ground staff at Heathrow are being balloted on an ‘offer’ from the employer is bad news whichever way you look at it. The fact that the reps are recommending acceptance just makes a bad situation worse. The union member who sent me the document summed it up, in his words: “These are surrender terms … minus the war!” and it’s hard to see any way of disagreeing.

10% wage cuts across the board, the abolition of set shift rotas – or even length of shifts (which will be announced ‘closer to the operational day’, degrading of holiday entitlements, scrapping the pay deal which BA had already signed off - the list goes on. This is an opportunistic smash and grab on terms and conditions, citing financial constraints - from a company which has so much loose cash slopping around its just bought another airline – that should have been met with a roar of outrage. Instead, the reps have run up the white flag.

I don’t buy the argument that they didn’t have a choice, that they were ‘negotiating’ with a gun at their heads. The first point to be rammed home is: they should have told the company that they were not going to be party to any ‘slice and dice’ deals. BA has made it clear that they are attacking terms and conditions right across the company, and the most effective response from the workforce would have been “We’re all in this together, we negotiate together. Cabin crew, whether BASSA or Mixed Fleet, ground staff whether baggage handlers, booking-in, maintenance, engineering, Unite or GMB, Heathrow, Gatwick, Edinburgh, wherever, we stand together.” That, after all, is what the ‘union’ bit in ‘trade union’ is supposed to mean. It is what the ‘Unite’ bit in ‘Unite, the union’ is supposed to represent.

I also don’t buy the argument that the pilots’ association Balpa (a trade union only in the legal sense of the word) had already cut and run, and done its own deal, and therefore unity had gone down the drain. Nobody with any passing knowledge of Balpa expected anything different; Balpa members actively colluded with the company in weakening the strike action of BASSA in 2010; they fulfilled the same function in Mixed Fleet’s industrial action over the last couple of years. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck – it’s probably Balpa.

The ink is barely dry on the statement by Unite’s General Secretary that “Solidarity is essential in this fight”. He was right to issue that call; he was right to describe the actions of BA as opportunistic, and dishonest; he was right to drive home the point that only unity offered any chance of blunting the edge of BA’s attack; and unfortunately, he is probably going to be proved right in the cost of that unity not being maintained.

I also don’t buy the argument that surrender was inevitable, that victory was impossible. I’m a firm believer in the old adage that “If you fight, you might not win, but if you don’t fight, you can’t win”.  It’s not true that there was no prospect of strike action having an effect. The doom-mongers blet on about the collapse in customer demand, the whole sector suffering a crisis, a whole section of the BA fleet being grounded because of Covid-19; - and? Ironically, that increases the effect of industrial action. It’s not just that BA’s cash revenue has been reduced to a trickle (cut that trickle off, and there’s no revenue at all). It’s the double whammy that BA needed to worry about.

Just think what the effect of BA being put into industrial lockdown would be: it’s not just that they then have no revenue; it’s that the cash they could have been earning, the contracts they would have fulfilled, the customers and freight they would have flown,won’t just disappear – they would be taken on by BA’s competitors. Every airline is gasping for breath at the moment; would BA really have wanted to see an economic lifeline (in the form of unexpected work) thrown to their rivals? They would see their competitors grabbing much needed revenue at BA’s expense. This doesn’t mean that BA would have been driven right back, but it does mean there was a better deal possible than the one now being imposed on them. From this point of view, it’s not what BA management (or even the management of the parent company, IAG) wants that counts, it’s what the shareholders, the money people, want, that really counts.

So of course BA workers still had muscle to flex. Instead of which they are in the unenviable position of being exposed as a paper tiger. What possible reason does an employer like BA now have to do anything other than walk all over its workforce? It wouldn’t surprise me if there was talk in the boardroom of whether or not they really need to continue to recognise the trades unions.

And it need not have been this way. But for it to have been different would require the arguments to be put to the members (and they may still have voted not to fight). Those arguments have not been put. They would have had to be fought for – and there is no indication of any stomach for a fight among the current reps.

What is needed is a rank and file campaign putting the case that this retreat is unnecessary and that a fight is possible.

Incidentally, taking the long view – BA’s problems are not over; they have not even begun. In the words of one cabin crew member “They have created a monster. There is hardly a BA worker now who trusts them an inch. They despise them for their greed and they loathe them for their bullying. If they beat us this time, we’ll be back, because they need us to make their profit. And when we come back, there will be no good will.” With that kind of spirit, BA has a problem. All we need to do is get organised.

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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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