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British Airways A380

British Airways A380-800 F-WWSC. Photo: BriYYZ / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0, licence linked at bottom of article

The news that BA has backtracked on their threat to sack their entire workforce, and selectively choose to rehire on drastically worse terms and conditions is a profoundly welcome development

It means that Willie Walsh (one-time head of BA, later promoted to run the parent group IAG) has failed, yet again, in what appears to have been a personal mission to smash trades unionism in BA. In 2010, he took on the then staff association BASSA in an attempt to smash workers’ organization among cabin crew. He retired with a bloody nose, having got agreement to employ new starters on new – and inferior – contracts, but with existing cabin crew protecting their terms and conditions, and more importantly their collective organization. His actions meant that BASSA went from being an in-house, (and largely house-trained) staff association to an extremely effective guard dog of trades unionism (and one of the largest branches in Unite, the union) as far as their terms and conditions were involved.

It also meant that new employees were expected to work alongside fellow workers on very different pay and conditions, with all the resentment that can cause. But far from dividing the workforce against each other, Walsh ensured the new starters worked in an environment where it was taken for granted the employer was deceitful, aggressive and greedy, and that workers’ only defense was to combine and organise. This laid the ground for the 2018/19 Mixed Fleet dispute, which resulted in the company having to recognise Unite as the voice of Mixed Fleet cabin crew (and the Mixed Fleet branch in its turn, growing to be one of the largest branches in Unite).

Move on to 2020, and Walsh has another go, this time using the pandemic as the excuse. Threatening 26,000 jobs, a mass ‘fire and rehire’ strategy, and a company-wide assault on jobs, pay, and union organization, Walsh was acting as an outrider for every rapacious employer keen to profit from the human misery of Covid-19. And for a time, it looked as if this time he might succeed. If BA had achieved their aims, it would have threatened an employer assault across industry and across the countries of the UK.  

Partly through the tenacity of the BA workforce (for which an awful lot of credit should be accorded to the Unite members among the cabin crew), partly through a public campaign which threatened BA’s exclusive right to prime landing slots at Heathrow (the jewel in BA’s crown), BA has been forced to take its finger off the nuclear button and start acting more like a normal employer (i.e. rapacious, greedy, heartless, but at least engaging with the collective representatives of the workforce).

Of course this is not a victory for the workers: they still face cuts in pay and conditions; the details are still to be clarified (the cabin crew supervisors in particular still face an uncertain future as do the workers at London City Airport;

Gatwick is facing a bleak future; there will still be redundancies, but the vast majority will be voluntary, and on enhanced rates) but, as in 2010, the employer’s assault has been beaten off. It might sound cynical to say, that the casualty rate is high – but nothing like the carnage BA wanted to wreak.

The ultimate proof that this is a defeat but not a catastrophe, one that leaves the workforce bloody but unbowed, is best demonstrated by one simple statistic: Unite has recruited 2,500 new members since the start of hostilities. BA may have unwittingly spread across their entire workforce the lesson that BASSA learnt a decade ago: the employer is vicious, venal and brutal. Workers’ only defense is collective organization.

All the above is a very brief summary of where we are at the moment, but it does beg the question whether it was inevitable that we end in this situation? From the outset, there were people arguing that the workforce was a sacrificial lamb, trussed and oven-ready for Walsh and Cruz; that the state of the industry meant industrial action was off the board. How can you strike when there are no passengers, the sector is in free-fall, and half the workforce is furloughed?

These arguments were partly dealt with in a previous article, which pointed out that actually, though it might seem counter-intuitive, the state of the industry focused the power of workers: precisely because air travel had collapsed, it meant every operator was desperate to maximize whatever income it could get hold of. At a time like this, to completely turn off the tap of passenger revenue would hit BA even more significantly than in more normal times. Not only would it hit precious income, worse still, it handed that revenue stream to competitors who were equally desperate for every penny they could raise. In effect, a double whammy.

I realize this could be seen as an abstract argument, that only a political purist living in dreamland would put. The members wouldn’t wear it, even if anybody had the bottle to argue it. Well, here’s a bit of gristle for the pragmatists to chew on: train drivers on the London Underground have just announced the result of their ballot for strike action over attacks on their pay and conditions. A stupid ballot, because passenger numbers have collapsed during covid, and so has revenue; large numbers of staff are furloughed, and management (TfL) had to go cap in hand only weeks ago, for an emergency bailout from central government. Any reasonable pragmatist would tell you the membership are not up for a fight; they’ve got too much common sense.

The ballot result? A 72% turnout, with a whopping 95% voting for action. This is good news, not only for activists in ASLEF (the train drivers union), but also for their counterparts in the RMT (the majority union on the tube). It is practical proof of something Counterfire has been arguing for some time: the fallout of the financial crash a decade ago (and the lost years of austerity that followed) drove home the class division in our society. The haves got more, and the have-nots paid the price. The success of the Peoples Assembly movement in providing a pole of attraction for that sense of injustice meant they could mobilise tens of thousands of people to protest. That sense of injustice and marginalization was one of the factors that led to the Brexit vote – a slap in the face for the establishment. The ‘Corbyn phenomenon’ was a demonstration of that on the political front, and it took three years of constant smear and dirty tricks from a combined assault by the media, the establishment and the state to put the Corbynistas back in their box.

But Counterfire argued, then and now, that the anger and resentment was still there, and sooner or later would emerge industrially, where our class is most concentrated and organized.

At the moment, as the ASLEF ballot shows, the members are more radical than many of their reps and union officials realise, which is why rank and file bulletins (as “Tunnel Vision” on the underground) can play such a significant role. If there had been an equivalent in BA, operating across the sectors, linking up activists in BASSA, Mixed Fleet, ground staff, A-scales etc., we may have been in a different place today.

This is not to underplay the resilience and sheer bloody-mindedness of BA workers who have forced back the worst of the employer’s attack, but it is to suggest that that network of activists, on the ground, could help them win back some of the ground they have been forced to concede. The mass meeting of over 1,000 BA workers at Bedfont (just outside Heathrow) on August 20 voted overwhelmingly for strike action. Unite’s Assistant General Secretary Howard Beckett told the press immediately afterwards “Enough is enough. We will now instruct our legal specialists to proceed to industrial and legal action, which will hit BA in the autumn”.

That was 4 weeks ago, and there is still no hint of an industrial action ballot. It may be that it was intended as rhetoric rather than concrete intent. It may be that ‘wiser’ heads have argued caution. It may be that the reps are not convinced the stomach for a fight is there in the wider membership. What is undoubtedly true is that in the absence of a conscious, collective pressure from below, the ballot is likely to remain on hold, and a central weapon of our collective power will not be deployed.  

Which is why I titled this piece “Armageddon has been averted, but the forces of evil are still in the field.” What could have been a disaster – for the working class as a whole in Britain – has ben avoided, and for that, we should thank all those who resisted BA. But it could have been better.  

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Tagged under: Trade Union
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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