A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Why I back British Airways staff strike

The sickening bonanza for the rich goes on; last week the Forbes 'rich list' showed that the number of billionaires on the planet has increased significantly over the last year, and they have seen their incomes soar. Here in Britain, the Audit Commission has released the results of a study on the severance packages of council chief executives. In a 33 month period, 37 individuals received £9.5 million. It is from this wealthy layer and their representatives in the main political parties that venom and condemnation is unleashed on civil servants and British Airways cabin crew - workers who have been forced to vote for strike action to stop a relentless driving down of their terms and conditions. Transport Secretary Lord Adonis declared that a strike of BA cabin crew would be "totally unjustified" - this from a man who was not even elected to parliament, about a strike that was democratically decided by an overwhelming majority of the cabin crew.

New Labour leader Gordon Brown joined the baying mob, by calling the BA strike "deplorable". Yet the BA workers' trade union, Unite, is the largest donor to New Labour, giving £11 million of its members' money to the party over the last four years alone. So Brown urges on the imposed 'race to the bottom' for working class people's living standards, while raking in their union subs to fund further vicious attacks. Members of the PCS union are mainly in the public sector, British Airways cabin crew are in the private sector, but in both cases they have been forced to fight simply to defend previously agreed contracts and conditions - an aim that is a million miles away from the greed of the fat cats who are behind the denigrations of their struggles.
An enormous class chasm separates the interests of the workers being forced into action and those who are leading the attacks on them. But the potential strength of all the working and middle class people under attack, or threatened with attacks, is enormous.

Not just hundreds, or thousands, but millions of other workers will be able to identify with the plight of those taking strike action now, and would be willing to give support if the trade union movement mobilises it. The planned seven days of strike action in two separate walkouts on 20-22 March and 27-30 March by British Airways (BA) cabin crew opens up a new chapter in their ongoing dispute with BA management. The dispute was triggered when the management tore up cabin crew contracts last November. They reduced the number of crew on flights, changed the role of the lead member of the crew team and proposed to bring in new staff on inferior pay and conditions. In a final throw of the dice to resolve the dispute, the crews' union, Unite, offered a pay cut of 2.6% and agreed to new starters having inferior terms and conditions. However, the management refused to allow the new starters to work alongside existing crew. Instead, it wanted a 'new fleet' with lower paid crew working on different planes and routes to existing cabin crew. This was a bridge too far for cabin crew. Separating off the new crew would make it more difficult to recruit them into the union with a view to bringing their terms and conditions up to the level of their longer standing colleagues.

Instead, there could be a significant number of workers outside the union, weakening the negotiating position of cabin crew in any future dispute. Also, there would be an immediate effect on pay. Basic pay for the bulk of cabin crew is very low. Some new starters are on as little as £14,000 a year. This can be topped up through allowances, with the most being paid for long distance destinations.However management could use the new lower wage crews, on lower allowances, for these longer routes. While I refuse to support Unite's offer of pay cuts in talks, management's stubborn refusal to compromise on the new fleet shows that for it, cost saving is largely secondary to undermining one of the strongest organised sections of the BA workforce. Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey voiced similar suspicions when he said that BA management's "real agenda is destroying trade unionism among its employees."  Cabin crew are in a powerful industrial position. From the moment they strike, planes will stop flying and the company will haemorrhage money every minute.

Therefore, management's strategy has been to delay industrial action for as long as possible through protracted negotiations, vague promises and before Christmas, attacking a democratic strike ballot through the courts. A barrage of harassment and intimidation has been unleashed on the crew in the hope of undermining their will to strike. Management has also leased 25 fully-crewed planes and has been trying to train a scab crew for use during the strikes, including by calling for volunteers from other parts of the company.

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