Round 2: Cabin Crew vote for strike action

UNITE the union announced on Monday that British Airways Cabin Crew voted overwhelmingly for strike action. The ballot, which followed last Decembers injunction of planned strike action over Christmas was passed by 80% on a 78% turn out. Although the yes vote was down from 92% in the previous ballot one would search long and hard to find a politician from the three main parties re-elected in such an emphatic fashion.

The fall in the vote can perhaps be attributed to uncertainty over whether strike action would again be halted by the courts but more importantly to an onslaught of management intimidation and harassment of union activists in the run up to the dispute. This has included suspending 15 reps for comments made on social networking sites. Nonetheless a clear majority of Cabin Crew have demonstrated they are prepared to resist the changes imposed on them to the very end.

Despite UNITE going to great lengths to ensure the ballot fully complies with the anti-trade union laws, the threat of the courts sabotaging action remains real. The independent scrutineer, the Electoral Reform Commission, has declared the ballot to be compliant with the Industrial Relations Act. However the recent injunction on a strike by ship pilots in Milford Haven has demonstrated the willingness of the courts to intervene on the side of the employer.

UNITE have not yet named dates for strike action in the hope progress can be made in negotiations with the company. All eyes will now turn to the joint branch meeting of cabin crew on 25th February. While a deal can not be ruled out it is difficult to see Willie Walsh backing down on key union concerns of reduction of staffing and the introduction of a new non unionised workforce on inferior terms and conditions without a serious fight. Willie Walsh may fear that if he fails to ‘tame’ Cabin Crew he could well suffer the same fate as one of his predecessors Bob Ailing. His position became untenable when he was defeated by a Cabin Crew strike in 1999.  For this reason BA’s dual strategy of undermining the union through harassment of staff and attacking industrial action through the courts is likely to continue.

Cabin Crew have demonstrated time and again the resilience to endure management bullying and deliver effective industrial action. A bigger dilemma is posed by the threat to injunction strike action. No doubt the intervention of the courts has emboldened BA management to take a hard line with the unions.

If BA again secures an injunction this will pose a huge challenge to UNITE and indeed the whole trade union movement. If the largest private sector branch in the country loses a high profile battle with a hard nosed employer the negative results for the rest of the movement will be immediate and long lasting. It will act as a green light for employers across the country to tear up agreements and embark on union busting, safe in the knowledge that industrial action is sealed off by the courts. Another injunction on cabin crew would be an attack on the entire trade union movement.

Therefore cabin crew should not be left to face the onslaught of management and the courts alone. It may well be necessary to call on other Unite members and trade unionists employed at BA to come to the assistance of cabin crew through action of their own. Other groups of workers could fast track their own disputes and coordinate any strike action with cabin crew.

Where effective legal strike action proves to be impossible because of spurious technicalities then the question of unofficial action is posed. Nobody should be cavalier about unofficial industrial action but it must be considered when no other option is open short of surrender and where it is deliverable by the union members.

Unite should mobilise its members at Heathrow and beyond into a mass demonstration of support for the cabin crew around the airport and should publicly declare that the union will defy any injunction. Any move by the courts to sequestrate union funds should be met by Unite calling the whole trade union movement to come to its aid.

The undemocratic manner in which an unelected judge ruled their last strike ballot out of order and the possibility that this may happen again makes a discussion on these issues pressing.

Recent history in the Lindsey and the BA check-in disputes shows that in the face of a determined response from union members the anti-trade union laws can be exposed as a paper tiger.

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