Britain - "Unite"'s huffing and puffing at BA

Apr/Jun 2010

In January 2009 British Airways boss, the notorious (ex-Aer Lingus) Willie "Slasher" Walsh, announced that 1,700 cabin crew jobs would be cut and that workers should agree to a 2-year pay freeze. He also said that BA intended to create a second tier workforce with considerably worse pay and conditions, similar to those of its rival "low-cost" airlines.

Unite the union, which incorporates BASSA, the old airline stewards' and stewardesses' union, began negotiations in the spring of 2009 with an offer to "help" BA find savings. However BA totally rejected these initial proposals and imposed a deadline of 30 June for its announced cuts to go ahead.

In the meantime, Walsh launched his own campaign to make the workforce pay for the recession. He proposed that workers volunteer to work for free for a week or more - and he "set the example" by foregoing his own £61,000 "salary" for one month, except that this is only thirty times more than an average BA worker earns!

Pilots were balloted on a deferment of their pay increase for 2009, which they accepted, apparently saving BA £26m.

The deadline of 30 June passed, however, with no agreement on the cabin crew cuts. By September 2009, talks were restarted and now Unite offered to accept a 2-year pay freeze but in addition, it offered a 2.6% cut in pay, which, it argued, would make the job cuts unnecessary. It proudly presented BA with £51m in possible savings, saying this was more, even, than the pilots' union had saved the company.

However Walsh rejected this, too. He then wrote to staff saying that from 16 November, the cuts in jobs would be imposed, like it or not. Between 1 and 3 crew per flight (the 15 on long-haul cut down to 12) would be eliminated and voluntary redundancies would be offered to shrink the 13,500 cabin crews by 1,700.

Having received what amounted to a slap in the face, Unite now had little choice but to call a strike ballot. By the time the whole legal balloting process was complete, in mid-December, the result was announced: 92.4% of the workforce had voted to strike - with a turnout of 80%! This was quite exceptional, especially given these are postal ballots.

The union officials then announced 12 consecutive strike days starting on 22 December and ending on 2 January. This may well have sounded quite radical in a period where union leaders have only called 1, 2 or 3-day strikes at most. But it still committed workers to go back to work, regardless of whether BA had yielded any ground or not.

Of course, the union's threat may have been meant purely as a bargaining chip, using the emotive impact of calling a strike during the most important holiday period of the year. But it certainly allowed the media several field days, drumming up anti-strike and anti-union hysteria, over the chaos threatened for travellers.

As it happened, there was no opportunity to find out what was really intended by Unite, because BA's boss immediately served the union with a court injunction in order to prevent the strike. Maybe he was falling into a trap which the union had set for him. Because, after the High Court granted this injunction on rather controversial grounds, it was actually the judge who made the ruling, as well as Walsh, who were discredited, rather than the union. Articles appeared in most of the press condemning the judgement, which had declared the strike illegal because some 1,000 of the workers who had been sent ballot papers had already taken or applied for redundancy.

Despite the significant public outcry - that is, an unusual expression of sympathy from commentators, if not the general public - the union leadership accepted the judgement rather than appeal. It then announced a re-ballot.

That did not, however mean that Unite officials gave up trying to ingratiate themselves with Walsh and his fellow bosses. They compiled a new presentation offering concessions on 14 January, with the help of the TUC, entitled "BA the Way Forward" In this proposal, Unite reiterated that it would accept a 2 year wage freeze. It also agreed that crew would give up 2 nights rest (and accept a minimum of 10 hours between shifts!) and work longer hours and with fewer crews when needed. Worse, it offered to accept the new "flexi-fleet" crewed by workers on inferior terms and conditions, in exchange for being awarded full union recognition for this second tier workforce!

BA rejected this "way forward", however, and again, Unite was left without any option but to go ahead with the re-ballot for strike, with forms sent out from 25 January. The delay did not diminish the determination of the cabin crew to stand up to BA bosses however. The result, announced on 22 February, was only slightly less overwhelming than it had been in December. This time 80.7% voted yes to industrial action on a 78.7 per cent turnout. (7,482 out of 11,691 ballots)!

Through the Looking Glass

It then took another 4 whole weeks before the strike was finally called. But during these 4 weeks, Unite leaders still had not given up looking for a negotiated settlement on the basis of agreeing that crews should accept a profound turn of the screw and a wage cut. They even ruled out, in advance, the possibility of an Easter strike, so as not to appear too uncompromising. But BA bosses had decided they were going to show that all resistance was futile. Not only did they reject Unite's advances, but they actually kept moving the goalposts - by aggravating the terms and conditions offered to the cabin crews and threatening to remove travel allowances from any strikers. They also made a huge media splash over their recruitment of strike breakers and the fact that they were training their own non-cabin crew staff - including pilots - to take over during the strike.

Eventually, on 12 March, the assistant general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey made the following statement:

"The talks we have been conducting with British Airways over the entire course of this year reached a conclusion this week. Regrettably, management turned down a remarkable offer from the union which would have given the company everything it said it wanted while also meeting our members' concerns."It is a little hard to imagine how an offer from the union, no matter how "remarkable" could give BA everything it wanted and at the same time meet members' concerns, but never mind. He went on to welcome the fact that BA was finally seeing reason and wanted to negotiate with the union now instead of "imposing" on it. He committed the union to holding a consultative ballot over BA's counter offer, which Unite felt "unable to recommend."

BA's offer this time was a 4-year pay freeze. It would restore only 184 of the 1,100 cabin crew so far cut (with additional part-time duties). Unite was insisting at this point that 700 jobs be restored (i.e., it had already agreed in theory, to almost 1,000 job cuts).

At the same time, however, BA refused to extend the validity of the industrial action ballot which was close to expiring. This meant that if the crew rejected BA's latest offer, they would have to be balloted for the 3rd time in as many months, unless strike dates were announced immediately. So, added McCluskey, "Strikes are planned for March 20, 21 and 22 and further on March 27, 28, 29 and 30. There will be no strikes over the Easter period, as we already promised, but further industrial action will be called to take place after April 14 if the dispute has not been resolved."

McCluskey added that he felt that BA had been deliberately fanning the flames of the dispute: "Every time talks appeared to make progress, the chief executive or another senior manager has popped up making public statements designed to inflame the situation. This has led to the view that BA management's real agenda is destroying trade unionism among its employees."Nevertheless, he reiterated that Unite was prepared to work with British Airways to restore industrial relations "provided we have a willing partner on the management side" But if the members rejected BA's latest offer (there was no question they would) Unite would "stand four square behind our cabin crew members in their struggle against industrial dictatorship, and we will call on the whole of the labour movement at home and abroad to stand with us."BA knew what it was doing in dragging out the negotiations. Of course, Unite could have tried to ensure that the process was faster and that it did not run out of time. But be that as it may, BA used the fact that Unite had announced the strike dates before giving its members the chance to reject the offer, as a reason to take this offer off the table!

The battle was beginning to look more and more like Tweedledum versus Tweedledee. But then it crashed right through the looking glass into Wonderland! Because despite this offer being the worst one yet, Unite's Tony Woodley insisted that BA should put it backon the table - in which case, he said, Unite would agree to call off the impending strike!

"The facts are that yesterday Acas asked Unite if we would suspend our strikes if BA put its withdrawn offer back on the table. Unite said yes. And Acas asked BA if it would reinstate its offer if Unite called off the strikes. The company said no. It is therefore abundantly clear where responsibility for the continuation of this dispute lies." said Woodley.

The strike that almost never was

Unite had no way out anymore. Finally, at very long last, the first strike in 13 years against BA went ahead. Starting on 22 March, it lasted for 72 hours.

Tony Woodley, joint leader of Unite duly excused himself: "The disruption that passengers will inevitably experience over the next three days could have been spared had BA grasped that you cannot put an offer on the table one day, take it off the next and then come back with a worse one a few days later."

No, you cannot. But not for one second was Woodley shaken in his attempts to re-establish the old partnership relationship with BA: "Unite remains available at any time to talk to BA. We urge them to think again about what is truly in the long-term best interests of this great airline."But in the meantime the very solid strike provided a wonderful opportunity for pre-election politicking and for government ministers (Lord Adonis, transport secretary called it "totally unjustified") and the prime minister himself, to be heard condemning it (he said it was "unjustified and deplorable"), while they were being taunted by the Tories over the fact that Unite is the biggest financial pillar of the Labour Party.

Then BA refused not only to put its (absurdly lousy) offer back on the table, but in fact upped the ante by confirming the loss "for life" of discounted travel for all those cabin crews guilty of taking strike action.

This was done in the context of ongoing victimisation of both ordinary strikers and union activists (at one point, 38 were suspended under various pretexts).

Then, on the eve of the next strike, an unusual letter appeared in the Guardian newspaper signed by 116 "leading academics" in the field of employment relations including professors from the London School of Economics. They wrote: "It is clear to us that the actions of the chief executive of British Airways, notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary, are explicable only by the desire to break the union which represents the cabin crew." Why else, they asked, would Walsh table an inferior offer to his previous one and why would he get help during the strike from his "arch rival" Ryanair?

These academics warned that this threatened "employment relations" and argued that Unite should be supported, not vilified if "democracy" was to be preserved. They even deplored the "race to the bottom in terms of working conditions and job quality", exemplified by Walsh's "macho management strategy". Indeed, they know that the bosses need to play their role as proper partners too, and not go on the rampage too much, as Willie Walsh was doing.

The second strike - 4 days this time, was solid - despite the pressure of victimisation/removal of travel allowances. This time, however, BA managed to muster quite a fairly large strike-breaking contingent, but mainly by chartering other airlines along with their crews.

Unite, on the other hand, which had been paying cabin crew £30 per day strike pay - now announced a 2% levy on all branches (from branch funds, not members' dues) to support the strike. But this is probably more for show than anything else because this appeal came only at the end of the 4-day strike and no actual date has yet been set for "after the 14 April".

There were other media coups for the union in addition to the letter from the academics, like the announcement from the US Teamsters Union and other unions around the world, that their members would show solidarity - even if this could and would be token, because of their (self-imposed) legalistic constraints.

Narrow sectionalism the name of their game

There is one aspect of BA's attacks which has been glaring by its absence in Unite's preoccupations. BA's total workforce (of which Unite represents two thirds), at the beginning of 2009 was around 40,000 when BA announced its pretax losses of £401m - after record profits in 2008/9 of £922m! When Walsh announced a pay freeze across the board, plus 3,700 job cuts - it applied to the whole of the workforce from pilots to baggage handlers, not to mention many sub-contracted workers whose bosses were and are expected to provide their services for less.

This was almost 10% of the total and BA had already cut 2,500 jobs in 2008.

After pilots (who have their own union) had separately voted to accept a pay cut and (according to BA) 800 other staff had agreed to work for free for up to one month, Unite decided to hold a joint "protest" at the shareholders' meeting last July. This protest comprised of waving placards calling on Willie Walsh to go through the departure gate - and handing out a letter complaining that management did not appreciate Unite's willingness to "pull together to secure a vibrant future for the company" and pointing out that they "desperately need to see that BA senior management want to work with them towards this objective" That was, in fact, the only cross-sectional "action" Unite saw fit to organise.

Later last year, Unite was actually conducting several disputes amongst porters and baggage handlers at the exact same time as cabin crew were first threatening to strike!

In Gatwick, porters (employed by subcontractor Interserve) struck on 18 and 19 December over a pay freeze; baggage handlers and check-in staff employed by SAS Ground Services UK at Heathrow and Aberdeen were ready to take 6 days strike action over Xmas and New Year, over transfer to a new employer and a pay freeze - but in the end, the dispute went to Acas. No attempt whatsoever was ever made to link these workers up with BA cabin crew.

Two weeks before the first strike by the cabin crews, 2,600 "Ramp and Baggage Service" workers at Heathrow (out of 4,500 employed by BA around the country) were threatening to strike over changes in their working conditions if BA did not withdraw the letter proposing these changes. This was reported as a possible "second" front against BA by the media, but Unite had absolutely nothing to say about that possibility!

Of course, one single united front would have strengthened everyone concerned, cabin crews and ramp workers alike. It could have sabotaged BA's salami-slicing tactics which aims at cutting the workforce, separate bit, by separate bit. But instead, Unite has not only adapted to BA's salami slicing but agreed to bring along the mustard.

Ironically, it was on 14 April, Unite's deadline date for calling more action "if need be", that the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland, halted all airlines' flights. Evidently, Willie Walsh has since been otherwise engaged. He apparently went up in a Boeing himself, to check on the effect of the ash, a full 4 full days before planes were given the all-clear - and came back down safely...

At the time of writing, the cabin crew are about to begin a consultative ballot after proposals negotiated by Unite's Woodley which would see some of their travel allowances restored and the now 50 victimised staff, cleared of accusations, but it is unclear what is offered as regards the job and pay cuts.

Ballot results are due on 3 May, just before the election. If workers reject the proposals the strike is meant to be back on. However, in the meantime, the trite old warning is being repeated: that a strike "by one of the Labour Party's biggest donors" t this point would "damage Brown's re-election chances" As if.

In the meantime, Unite has declared its intentions to facilitate BA's merger with Iberia, confirmed on 8 April, in which both companies are intending to "save" another £600m a year, meaning, inevitably, yet more cuts in jobs and conditions!

It is true that Unite is not responsible for Walsh's explicit attempt to make BA workers pay for a recession-linked loss of profits to BA shareholders. But it is responsible for squandering BA cabin crews energy and determination, which could have won the battle to prevent job cuts.

It is not as if, despite the recession and the volcanic ash, companies like BA and Iberia do not have any money anymore, after having accumulated piles of cash during the "good" years (eg., BA's £922m in 2008/9) which could well be mobilised now, during the "hard times".

But for this to happen, workers need to arm themselves with a policy which is not aimed, like that of Unite's, at getting the union leaders and officials into a position where they are actually just helping to implement the cuts which the bosses want. And yes, it would involve breaking down all the sectional barriers, excluding no-one!