Strenuous efforts by Unite to avoid a cabin crew strike forced British Airways to keep talking until a few hours before the deadline at midnight Friday 19 March, but with BA’s manager Willie Walsh (renegade pilot negotiator at Aer Lingus in the 1980s) taking an uncompromising union-busting approach, talks were bound to break down.
The last-minute final package he offered was designed to be unacceptable: it was inferior to the one previously withdrawn, demanding a four-year pay freeze instead of three.
Later that night, on YouTube, he wept crocodile tears for the initial thousand cancelled flights and his lost £27 million, but he didn’t sound sorry. As Unite’s Tony Woodley said, he wanted confrontation.
The 14,000-strong cabin crew organisation BASSA (British Airline Stewards and Stewardesses’ Association of the former T&G) has run a “United We Stand” campaign and is officially supported by 18,000 non-union members of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), and by unions around the world handling BA passengers. The APFA called for solidarity on the grounds that the union is “representing us all by extension”.
Unite pulled out all the stops. As Workers went to press, there were pickets all around the periphery of Heathrow, with planes grounded everywhere. Rallies for unions and the public to show support kicked off on 20 March at Hatton Cross near Heathrow.
The British pilots’ union, BALPA, has so far remained neutral, but Italian pilots have pointed out that the conditions of all pilots could be reduced if BA is seen as a success by other European airlines.
BA staff in Australia and the USA likewise fear for their jobs if Walsh gets his way, and hinted that they might not cooperate with British flights.
Citing competition from low-cost flights, a global slump and volatile fuel prices, BA said it needed to save £62.5 million. This was matched last year by Unite offering the equivalent of £62 million in structural changes to working practices and a 2.6 per cent pay cut. In October 2009, following a summer of failed arbitration at ACAS, 3,000 staff switched to part-time working or took voluntary redundancy – equal to the loss of 1,700 posts – and the dispute should have been resolved at that point.
But it quickly became clear that Walsh had another agenda, which did not involve negotiation. The more the union gave, the more BA demanded, including a lengthening pay freeze and cuts to long-haul crew numbers, in addition to a 25 per cent reduction in staff on European flights. This is exactly the sort of slimming exercise usually preceding merger – in this case a possible deal with the failed Iberia airline has been suggested.
In December 2009 a union ballot of 90 per cent in favour of a strike was declared invalid due to irregularities (one of the disadvantages of a large union like Unite is the difficulty in keeping tabs on membership demographics). The ballot was re-run with 80 per cent in favour, a solid result by any standard, and particularly so in view of company pressure. BA put an offer on the table, which BASSA looked likely to accept.
But Unite was running out of time. The law states that a strike may not be called more than 28 days after the close of a ballot, unless the company has agreed an extension. This was refused. Unite was forced to declare strike dates 20-22 March and 27-30 March – at which point the offer was withdrawn.
BA then resorted to intimidating and dangerous strike-breaking methods, for which it had prepared several months in advance: training staff from other areas of BA to stand in for the crew; suspending 30 staff on a spurious pretext in addition to union activists already suspended or awaiting disciplinary procedure; and withdrawing allowances and travel concessions, on which a third of the workforce depend to get to work (it was considered that the loss of travel perks for life could be Walsh’s killer blow).
Meanwhile BA shares rose, as the City backed Brown, who in turn lined up with that unelected duo, Lords Mandelson and Adonis, to condemn the strike as “unjustifiable”. Presumably they would all like to see the decline of the once-loved British national airline into a vulgar two-tier service with two-tier pay and conditions, like the no-frills Ryanair with its add-on charges for luggage, plans for charges for toilet visits, and even charging workers to attend job interviews.
The Tories, too, are tediously predictable as a general election looms. Surely Cameron was barely out of nappies the last time the spectre was raised of “union power”? What does he know? It remains to be seen whether the cosy relationship between Unite and the Labour party will prove the Achilles heel of one or the other.
But we don’t look to parliament to save BA from itself. Parliament has ceased to care about keeping industries British. The public appreciates that the cabin crew is the real face of the airline. They are trained to recognise emergencies and save lives, but are treated like skivvies. At Gatwick their starting wage is a mere £11,000 – so low it qualifies them for tax credit – rising to just £20,000 after 12 years service if they are lucky.
Rates are only slightly higher at Heathrow. Yet these are the only people who can be trusted to have the welfare and standards of the airline genuinely at heart; at this watershed in time, the survival of BA is in their hands.