For open negotiations



    Striking workers from Lindsey Oil Refinery vote on progress of negotiations as reported by strike committee


    Following the collapse of talks between BA CEO Willie Walsh and Unite Joint General Secretaries seven days ago, much has been made of Derek Simpson’s Twittering the progress of negotiation. Much of the criticism directed at Simpson has simply been a smoke screen to avoid the fact that Walsh had no interest in reaching a fair agreement. However it does raise the issue of how striking workers should be kept abreast of negotiations carried out on their behalf. In a guest post from Greg, Air Strike discusses these issues in the context of the current cabin crew dispute.  

    Since the onset of the economic crisis in 2007, employers and the government have used this as a cover to attack working people’s jobs, pay and trade union-negotiated terms and conditions. In a number of cases, this has resulted in disgraceful attacks being pushed through. But amongst certain sections of workers, the tightening economic situation and the severity of the attacks they have faced has meant that action has been organised and victories have been scored. 

    2010 alone has seen a number of high-profile disputes. But the struggle taking place amongst cabin crew at BA is by far the most visible, reported on and looked towards. 

    It has sharply focused trade unionists minds on the undemocratic nature of the British courts, which have been used on a number of occasions to attempt to block action being taken. Revelations about plans being drawn up by BA management to take on BASSA well before the onset of the current economic crisis have exposed the true nature of these attacks. But more than anything, the large and lively picket lines and the packed-out strike HQ have been a huge inspiration to trade unionists across the country. In the face of a seemingly intransigent management, personified by the anti-union Neanderthal Willie Walsh, cabin crew have grounded planes as effectively as a volcano could and forced management back round the negotiating table. 

    During the second round of industrial action, talks between BA management and the leadership of UNITE have taken place whilst strikes are ongoing. This is wholly correct; the pressure of solid industrial action taking place ‘just around the corner’ on Walsh strengthens the position of the union. Too often in industrial negotiations, national union leaderships have been prepared to suspend strikes without consulting their members for talks which lead no-where, making it more difficult to mobilise workers for further strike days following this. 

    This stop-start approach has not always been the case, and was the exception rather than the norm right up until the 1990s. Since then, it has become a common demand from the employer before negotiations begin. Likewise, it has become the norm for employers to insist that negotiations are ‘confidential’ before entering into them. This demand has been accepted by the leadership of UNITE, but you can guarantee that Willie Walsh will be giving regular updates to BA management and shareholders! 

    Socialist Party members in the union would argue that accepting this demand was a mistake. The experience of postal workers in the CWU over the course of their recent dispute is testament to this. Following a series of strike days last year, talks were entered into on a confidential basis. 

    Over a period of months, frustration grew amongst CWU activists that little or no information was given about the detail of negotiations, or even information in broad outline about how the talks were progressing. By the time a deal was drawn up between management and the union and put to CWU members, many ordinary posties would have forgotten about the strike ballot all together! If, however, the negotiations had been open then the union would have been free to give regular updates to the entire membership. This would have had a two-fold effect. 

    Firstly, it would have meant that the wider membership of the union continued to be actively involved in the dispute, avoiding frustration developing and making any further industrial action easier to mobilise if it became necessary. 

    Secondly, it would have been an added pressure on management during negotiations; they would have known that at every stage, they were not just dealing with the CWU negotiating team, but with the postal section of the union as a whole. 

    This is also the case in the cabin crew dispute; imagine the difference it would make if after every day of negotiations, a clear report was given to those at Bedfont of the details of the talks. At the end of the day, whatever is agreed upon in negotiations, it is the decision of cabin crew themselves to accept or reject this. But we feel that the union would be in a stronger position negotiating openly and members would be more likely to not just put pressure on management but influence the specifics of the demands pursued by union negotiators if this process were openly organised. 

    It is well know, for instance, that in other disputes the current leadership of UNITE have pursued a policy of ‘concession bargaining’. That is, offering up certain cuts or terms and conditions to avoid more severe attacks that the employer has lined up. This was the case in Honda last year, where the union negotiated a 3% wage cut. Negotiators would be less likely to offer up hard-won terms and conditions like this if, at every stage, they were openly accountable to the members they are representing in talks. 

    During the dispute centring around construction workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery last year, strikers discovered that UNITE and GMB officials had entered into discussions without informing them. Fifty strikers were sent from the picket lines to the talks find out what was going on. They were able to get a representative from their strike committee to sit in on their talks and ensure that no deal was done behind their backs. 

    As well as this, regular bulletins were produced in the name of members of the Lindsey strike committee. In between the mass meetings that took place and for workers in other parts of the construction industry, these bulletins were vital for keeping as many workers as possible in the loop on the development of the strike, tactics that were being put forward and other issues. 

    At the end of the day, the current dispute at BA is a struggle for the livelihoods and future of all those workers taking action. It is their action that has delivered the current situation where a formally intransigent management has had to come back to the negotiating table; it is their determination which has moved things in the favour of the workforce. And it is them who will have to live with the daily results of whatever deal is eventually won. 

    Socialist Party members back their action to the hilt and have visited pickets to discuss with these workers and express solidarity. We stand for the utmost democracy and accountability within the worker’s movement because it has proved to be important in the past to delivering victories for working people. 

    Over the course of the next few years, we will unfortunately see more and more cases where working people are forced to take action to defend themselves. Part of preparing for this is fighting for an effective leadership that can take struggles forward and pushing for openness and accountability to ensure that all workers are involved at every stage of a dispute, our representatives are accountable and the maximum pressure is exerted on the employer. 

    For the wider trade union movement, the struggle at Heathrow so far holds many positive examples of this – the wide involvement of cabin crew in pickets and the strike base at Bedfont to get around anti-trade union limits on picket participation, for example. But it is worth Socialist Party members in UNITE striking a cautious note about the closed nature of discussions so far. 

    Cabin crew at BA are an inspiration to workers across the country and should be proud to demand of their negotiators and the employer that they are not willing to accept cuts in pay, attacks on their terms and conditions or the right to organise in a trade union, which is what has won the standards that they are currently so determinedly defending. 

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