BASSA, the British Airways cabin crew section of the union Unite, has reached what new General Secretary Len McCluskey called “an honourable settlement”.
What is meant by this is that after two gruelling years of enduring job and pay cuts, broken promises and bellicose litigation by BA, a series of ballots and strikes, intimidation and sackings, this group of workers new to struggle has emerged with many of its demands met, but more importantly, with its organisation intact and bolstered against future attacks by the employer. It can hold its head high, and in practical terms it has won a considerable breathing space.
For its part, BA (also under less entrenched leadership) has been forced to recognise the crucial contribution of its workforce to this “iconic” British sector of the airline industry.
Danger to the public has been averted: the hurried training for strike breakers bussed through picket lines posed a real threat to passengers and damaged the image of BA.
Many lessons will have been learned. The company now knows that negotiation not confrontation is in its interest. Litigation hampered this settlement – the two-year pay deal currently being recommended to the union membership could have been reached without the loss to BA of £150 million.
Staff travel concessions have been restored; they should never have been removed. Under the deal, changes to the airline’s disciplinary procedure have been agreed – the result of bitter experience in this dispute.
Anti-union legislation with its time limits on balloting is costly to both sides; the averted strike which threatened Easter and the royal wedding was called at that time to avoid the expense of running yet another ballot.
Details of productivity changes are under discussion by the union up to 1 July, but it seems likely that the cost-saving changes in working practices forced through by former CEO Willie Walsh will be made permanent. While existing staff will be largely protected, the new “mixed fleet” (result of merged BA and Iberia) will come in at lower pay and conditions. But new contracts regarding the “variable earnings” element of cabin crew pay will for the first time offer a baseline guaranteed amount per annum.
Many other items under dispute have been settled favourably, including sickness pay during strikes. The principle of collective agreements has been reinforced, and new ideas for career training and job satisfaction introduced. New more unified branch structures at Heathrow and Gatwick are also under discussion.
BASSA will not get everything it wanted, but calls to prolong the dispute are infantile. Far from giving the green light to BA for further attacks, the union has provided the conditions for the vital job of increasing its membership among cabin crew and drawing confident new members into disciplined future struggle. ■