Where is the cabin crew dispute going?

For the third time in four months hundreds of British Airways cabin crew assembled for a joint branch meeting. This was the first mass meeting since a court injunction halted planned strike action over Christmas. Since then a re-ballot of cabin crew returned a thumping majority in favour of industrial action.

In the run up to the ballot result an online poll organised by BASSA found over two thirds of members were in favour of a 10 day strike. More than 3,600 BASSA members voted in the poll – about a third of BA’s entire cabin crew workforce. There were also statements from national Unite leaders and BA management hinting at “meaningful discussions” and “some progress” in talks between the union and the company. All of this perhaps contributed to an air of expectation by union members going into the meeting at Kempton Park race course.

The meeting lasted for over two hours. Members emerged with the news that no dates for strike action had been announced. The mood of those leaving the meeting was palpably different to that prevailing two hours ago. They had come expecting dates to be announced for strike action but all that had been announced was unspecified progress in talks. One cabin crew member who spoke to Socialist Party members complained the message from the union leadership of what had been achieved so far was unclear and what the union was going to do next uncertain. There is a danger that failure of UNITE to show leadership and put strike action on the table, clearly favoured by a majority of cabin crew, could now have a demobilizing effect on union members.

It is sincerely hoped that British Airways have made significant concessions that address the fears cabin crew have about the future of their terms and conditions. If this can be achieved without naming dates for strike action then so much the better. While the full picture is unknown by those outside the negotiation table, it is puzzling why British Airways has made concessions at this point.

The history of BA managements behaviour up to this point has been one of refusing to meaningfully negotiate with unions, imposing change unilaterally, harassing union activists and attacking industrial action through the courts. Willie Walsh himself has built his reputation at Aer Lingus as a hardliner who takes on unions and imposes change favourable to management and shareholders. Now all of a sudden, under no pressure of looming dates for strike action, BA management is prepared to make concessions. It is more likely that BA is maneuvering to avoid an announcement of strike action. This then strengthens managements hand in negotiations. BA will be quite happy to discuss with unions indefinitely since the changes have already been imposed on staff.

This question will become clearer once a deal, if any, between the union leadership and BA is announced. Any deal that allows for the introduction of a separate fleet on inferior terms and conditions will be seen as a defeat for cabin crew. This will open the door to significantly weakening union strength at the company. A recent provocative ad by Ryanair stating they are the ‘no strike airline’ illustrates what sort of future lies in store for BA cabin crew if this were to come to pass.

However if the union stands firm and reaching a fair deal proves impossible then strike action becomes inevitable. The two votes for strike action and the online poll show that support for strike action is solid amongst staff. To put the strength of feeling in context the civil servants union the PCS has voted by 63% for two day national strike action over changes to the redundancy compensation scheme.

By deferring the announcements of strike action at the mass meeting UNITE are in danger of frittering away the support for strike action. Under the anti trade union laws the union must trigger industrial action within 28 days of the ballot result announcement. The failure to announce definite dates for strike action means that it is the state and the anti-union laws, no friend of trade unionists, which is setting the tempo of the negotiations, rather than the union. Everyday that is spent in negotiation is another day for management to apply more pressure on staff and more grievances to pile up.

If the UNITE leadership believe BA are more likely to negotiate without the immediate threat of strike action they are mistaken. Statements from BA saying they will not negotiate under the threat of strike action simply prove they believe there are one law for workers and another for management. After all BA seem to think UNITE should negotiate with them even though they are actively witch hunting union activists and threatening to withdraw travel perks from staff. In reality the strike weapon is the only thing an intransigent employer respects. UNITE would be in a far stronger negotiating position if dates for strike action were on the table. However failing that a definite deadline where strike dates will be announced is the next best option.

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