The balance of forces in the cabin crew dispute

The announcement of dates for strike action opens up a new chapter in the ongoing dispute between management and cabin crew.

To briefly recap this current dispute was triggered by BA management tearing up the contracts of cabin crew in November last year. This was done by reducing the number of crew on board flights, changes to the role of the CSD (Cabin Service Director, basically the lead member of the cabin crew team in flight) and proposals to bring in new starters on inferior pay and conditions.

In a final throw of the dice to resolve the dispute UNITE offered a pay cut of 2.6% and agreed to new contracts for new starters on inferior terms and conditions. The key sticking point was management’s refusal to allow these new starters to work alongside existing crew. Instead management proposes a so called “New Fleet” where lower paid crew will work separately on different planes and routes to existing cabin crew. This is as a bridge too far for cabin crew for two reasons.

Firstly having new crew on different planes would make it much more difficult to recruit them into the union with a view to eventually bringing their terms and conditions up to the level of their longer standing colleagues. Instead there would be a significant number of workers outside the union thus weakening the negotiating position of cabin crew in any future dispute.

Secondly the existence of a “New Fleet” would have an immediate effect on members pay. Basic pay for the bulk of cabin crew is very low. Some new starters are on as little as £14,000. Cabin crew can top up their earning through allowances paid while they are “downrange” i.e. traveling to different destinations in the course of their work. The amount they receive is different for each destination with the best paid routes being long distance destinations like Tokyo, LA, Sydney etc. Therefore if a new separate fleet on lower allowances comes into existence then there is no question which fleet management will use for the longer, more lucrative routes.

While the Socialist Party does not advocate offering up pay cuts in talks, management’s stubborn refusal to compromise on the “New Fleet” shows that cost savings concerns are largely secondary to undermining one of the strongest organised section of the BA workforce.

UNITE Deputy General Secretary Len McClusky voiced similar suspicions when he said managements negotiating tactics has “led to the view that BA management’s real agenda is destroying trade unionism among its employees.”

BA management is hell bent on destroying trade unionism because cabin crew is in a powerful industrial position. From the moment cabin crew strike planes will stop flying. The company will hemorrhage money every minute those planes sit on the tarmac. Since at the end of the day all that really matters to any capitalist is the bottom line this is a fearsome prospect for management.

Therefore through out this dispute management’s strategy has been to delay industrial action for as long as possible through protracted negotiations, vague promises that never materialize and ultimately attacking a democratic strike ballot through the courts. In the meantime a barrage of harassment and intimidation has opened up on cabin crew in the hope of undermining their will to take industrial action. The final fall back for management is to recruit a scab army to replace cabin crew during the dispute.

Management have been spinning to the press that they will be able to minimize disruption through various means.

BA has leased 23 fully crewed planes. They have also put out a call for “volunteers” from employees in other parts of the company to scab on cabin crew. In reality the majority of “volunteers” are from management, marketing and a minority of pilots. Regular reader will be aware BALPA, the union representing pilots; have been equivocal over their own members at BA volunteering to scab on another union. This has given the impression BA pilots are behind management. However in recent days it has emerged that a serious polarization has opened up in BALPA. Many BALPA members are concerned about the long term consequences for relations between pilots and cabin crew if a section of the BALPA membership were to scab in this dispute.

In a bizarre twist it has emerged a suspected terrorist has offered to help out BA management by scabbing on the strike. This will hardly be reassuring to BA travelers that Wille Walsh and co not only displays poor management skills in the industrial relations field but also appalling judgment when it comes to protecting the safety of customers.

Some aviation “experts” have stated that with a scab army BA will be able to run a service out of Gatwick and London City airports. That will mean, in their words “the strike cannot be as effective as Unite would like it to be”. However any turn to these airports from Terminal 5 in Heathrow is a sign of weakness on the part of BA.

Terminal 5 is BA’s main base with 650 “movements” (flights in and out) a day. Gatwick and City Airport have nowhere near the capacity to cover enough movements to seriously undermine the strike. On top of this the bulk of the scabs will be coming from Waterside, management HQ in Heathrow, which raises transport and parking issues.

The reality is BA will be lucky to cobble together a poorly trained crew of novices a fraction of the size of the experienced cabin crew. BA may well be able to put up a skeleton service for PR purposes but there is no question industrial action over a number of days will hit the company hard.

There is a huge feeling of anger amongst cabin crew and a desire to fight these attacks, which has been shown by two overwhelming majorities for strike action in consecutive ballots and well-supported mass meetings. We can also expect a propaganda offensive to open up on cabin crew by the media in the run up to the strike. The labour movement should not allow cabin crew to be bullied by the press as happened in December. Len McClusky has stated UNITE will be calling on the whole of the labour movement to back the strike. This is a good start. A march on Waterside organised and led by cabin crew but calling on workers at Heathrow and the wider labour movement to support and participate could be a focal point for rallying support for the dispute. This could then build the momentum for targeted picket action on Gatwick and City Airport if those airports are used by scab crew.

In the meantime the Socialist Party urges members and supporters to send messages of support to the UNITE cabin crew branches. Readers can contact BASSA at and Amicus Cabin Crew at


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