Nearly 3,000 members of the British Airways “mixed fleet” cabin crews have walked out as part of a six-day strike aimed at fighting what their union rightly describes as poverty pay. Unless a deal is reached, a fresh four-day strike will begin on 17th February. However, British Airways (BA) bosses are digging their heels in and refusing to negotiate.
Nearly 3,000 members of the British Airways “mixed fleet” cabin crews have walked out as part of the second tranche of a six-day strike aimed at fighting what their union rightly describes as poverty pay. Unless a deal is reached, a fresh four-day strike will begin on 17th February. However, British Airways (BA) bosses are digging their heels in and refusing to negotiate.
Despite BA’s initial promise to pay these workers 10% above the market rate, Unite the Union states that the crews’ basic starting pay is a little over £12,000 a year with a £3 hourly flight bonus, meaning salaries average out at around £16,000 a year. This compares rather poorly to a national average salary of just under £28,000. BA claim no employee should earn under £21,000, which if true would still hardly represent a king’s ransom.
A history of struggle
There is nothing new, however, about BA’s poverty pay and strong-arm, anti-union tactics.
Heathrow Airport has seen a strong history of struggle in recent years. In 2005, staff at Gate Gourmet, the subcontractor responsible for providing in-flight meals for BA, returned from a break to find their production line staffed by agency workers. The workers immediately stopped work in protest at this blatant attempt to undermine their pay and conditions, and were summarily sacked. (Some of them were held for seven hours in the canteen before being sent home.) This prompted a marvellous display of solidarity from BA baggage handlers, bus drivers and ground staff, who downed tools and took secondary action in support of the Gate Gourmet workers. Scandalously, their union, the TGWU (a forerunner of Unite) condemned this secondary action, and signed a compromise agreement with the company that sacrificed nearly half of the sacked Gate Gourmet workers.
Weakness invariably invites aggression, and BA was emboldened to take on the union, believing it could be smashed once and for all. In 2009, BA chief executive Willie Walsh announced sweeping job losses and a pay freeze, leading to a bitter dispute that would last two years and see over 90 crew members sacked or suspended for strike-related incidents. This time, the workers enjoyed a modicum of support from the leadership of the newly-constituted Unite union, and the deal agreed between general secretary Len McCluskey and new BA CEO Keith Williams staved off complete defeat for the workers, whilst still granting numerous concessions to BA.
Divide and rule
Crucially, the 2009-11 dispute lead to the formation of a new set of cabin crews under the “mixed fleet” banner, on considerably worse conditions than the other crews. All new cabin crew workers must join this mixed fleet. Like BA’s outsourcing of their in-house catering to Gate Gourmet in 1997, this move sought to divide the workforce, making it much easier to pick off each section one-by-one.
However, the secondary action by the baggage handlers, bus drivers and ground staff showed that these tactics can be resisted. Only the shameful betrayal by the union leadership ensured their defeat.
Need for an industrial strategy
Such open betrayals have not been a feature of Len McCluskey’s leadership – indeed, not a single strike has been repudiated on his watch, a considerable improvement on the previous situation. Nevertheless, there is much to do to develop a genuine industrial strategy that could resist such attacks in future. A few partial, defensive victories in isolated industries will not be enough to stop a crisis-ridden British capitalist class from making the workers pay for its crisis.
The struggle of the cabin crew needs to be linked up with the struggles of other low-paid, insecure workers in the aviation industry. Even pilots are finding their work increasingly poorly-paid and casualised. A general strike of aviation workers at Heathrow could bring large sections of the economy to a standstill.
Without broadening the struggle, the mixed fleet cabin crews will be isolated and forced to accept a damaging compromise. This bitter lesson was highlighted by the defeat at Grangemouth, where, despite being prepared to support strike action, McCluskey failed to organise a national campaign that would have given the workers confidence to take up the struggle. A national walkout like the one during the Lindsey oil refinery dispute of 2011 would likely have secured victory.
The political question
However, ultimately, even the broadest and most militant industrial action cannot overcome the fundamental problems implicit in British and world capitalism. The bill for the crisis must be paid by someone, and the capitalists are determined to ensure it be paid by the workers. This is, fundamentally, a political question. If the capitalist system cannot provide a civilised standard of living for everyone whilst taking society forward, it must be replaced.
Len McCluskey has correctly come out in support of Jeremy Corbyn, the self-described socialist now leading the Labour Party. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined Labour since Corbyn was elected, hoping he can usher in the replacement. But the assembled forces of the British state and media, as well as the machinery within his own party, are determined to defend the system that has given them their privileged position in society. Unite must continue to defend Corbyn and the movement he represents, and Unite members should take the fight for socialism into the Party at all levels.
Every dispute is a revolution in miniature. For a day or a week, the workers control a small part of society, and it becomes obvious the real power lies in their hands. A revolution is simply a generalisation of this process – instead of trying to take power in an individual workplace, we aim to take power in society as a whole. If you agree with our ideas, join us in the fight for a better world!