Another ballot shows overwhelming support from cabin crew at BA for a strike. A member tells Workers why…
On 9 February the union Unite announced that for a second time in this long running dispute a fresh strike ballot of British Airways cabin crew would have to take place. The reason, it said, was a legal blitz by the company, which was deliberately upping the ante by once again seeking an injunction rather than engaging in genuine negotiation.
In January, for a second time, members of the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA, part of Unite) voted decisively: nearly 80 per cent in favour of industrial action. BA clearly failed to understand the power of union members at the workplace, irrespective of divisions at the top and a low turnout in leadership elections. But, as the new general secretary Len McCluskey pointed out, there is usually a high turnout on workplace issues such as shop steward elections and voting on pay rises and industrial action.
By prolonging this dispute, BA has already lost £150 million (Unite has spent a great deal, too – maybe as much as £10 million). The company now intends to use the 1992 Trade Union Act to declare action based on the previous ballot unlawful. Under the Act, staff can be dismissed if they walk out for the same reason more than three months after they first went on strike. Staffing cuts were one of the reasons for action in 2010, and when Unite happened to mention this on their website, BA saw its opportunity and pounced.
But in this cat-and-mouse game, management has failed to take into account the ingenuity of the workforce, who recognise that in a protracted struggle such as this, tactics need to change. They are now openly discussing a more guerrilla type of action, such as working to rule, instead of the long walkouts of 2010. Meanwhile, they have agreed to mediation at ACAS.
A significant background factor is the BA merger with Iberia, finalised in January. As part of the International Airlines Group, the new company seeks to compete with low-cost carriers, and there is a question mark over pensions as well as current pay and standards of service.
A member of cabin crew, who cannot be named for fear of victimisation, writes tellingly from the heart of the matter, and with an understanding of how the economic situation is being exploited to drive down wages and conditions:
“Here are the basic facts. BA had a long-standing agreement with unions re cabin crew numbers being 5 or 4 on short haul and wanted to reduce these numbers (and similarly with long haul flights). Not being able to reach an agreement with Unite, BA went ahead and reduced the numbers regardless.
“They also planned the introduction of a new ‘fleet’ serving both long and short haul flights. The new fleet crew members would be on a contract giving a salary of approximately one half of current staff flying the same routes and they would have fewer rest hours and days off.
“In my contract there is a ‘redeployment’ clause, which states that if BA finds that [an employee’s] job for whatever reason no longer exists, they must find [the employee] a similar job within the company with similar pay. BA wants to replace this with a clause stating that the employee has 52 weeks within which to find him/herself a new job in the company beyond which time he is on his own.
“These were the reasons for the strike. The crew numbers were reduced, the strikers had their staff travel privileges removed. Staff travel privilege is where a member of staff (plus a limited number of family members) can fly at 10 per cent of the full tariff plus tax. This means typically a £80 return flight to Venice [standby]. After 10 years service, the cabin-crew member has 1 free flight (+ taxes) a year. Availability for seats goes by seniority, position in the company and years of service. Employees of BA who went on strike have now had their privileges reinstated but with the seniority as of July 2010, as if they had started work on that date.
“During the strike period several BA strikers were suspended and then sacked [for taking time with union duties]... About 18 people moreover were suspended for comments made on Facebook, which were pro strike or Union. The new fleet has been up and running since November 2010. Given that BA has shown no compunction in breaking past agreements, the fear amongst crew is that their intention is to force ‘old contract’ crew to accept the new contract.
“… [In the past] there was a strong feeling of pride in working for a company that offered a good service. The divisions in the company started back around 12 years ago with a strike for the same reasons: working conditions were worsened and a new contract was introduced with lower pay and different conditions. […] The services BA offer are now of an inferior quality compared with the past, for example, no food on flights under 2 hours and fewer crew and the atmosphere amongst crew and between crew and management is one of fear and suspicion.
“BA has used bullying tactics, supported by governments and even the legal system … I refer to the judge who ruled the first attempted strike illegal because of the current economic situation. Since when did legality depend on the economic crisis?”