Interview with Penny White

The following interview took place between Edmund Schluessel, a member of the Socialist Party and an activist in the University and Colleges Union (UCU) and Penny White.

As the first week of the British Airways cabin crew strike drew to a
close, I spoke to Penny White, a retired cabin crew member who now works for Bassa, the union within Unite representing the cabin crew. Ms White joined me by telephone for a fruitful conversation about the strike
situation and the conditions that BA’s workers face, under constant
attack from both management and the media.

The mood is good on the picket lines. “There are masses and masses of people there. We are still having people calling in saying they’re going on
strike for the first time” — as BA crew are distributed all over the
world, many who have been working in far corners of the earth are
joining the strike as soon as they return to British soil. “There are
more joiners every day. People are losing hundreds of pounds I’m afraid,
but people are determined they’re not going to let their colleagues down.”

We’ve heard some things already about Willie Walsh’s bullying tactics in
dealing with the BA cabin crew, so I asked if the same culture had
spread throughout BA. “To be honest, it seems everyone’s afraid of Walsh
now.” Even management feel Walsh is going too far: “we’ve had two lots
of food delivered to the picket lines saying ‘not everyone’s on Willie’s
side’.” Scabbing, though, is becoming a serious problem, with staff from
other sections of British Airways — pilots and engineers, for example
— impressed into substituting for trained cabin crew. “Volunteer crew
are being told, ‘if you don’t volunteer, you’ll be the first one out the
door’. There’s a climate of fear within Waterside”, the international
head office of BA. “You do what you’re told. They don’t dare protest.
Willie Walsh has got rid of all the people who are high up enough who
would have gone against him and he’s just carrying on regardless.” White
spoke of abuses toward staff in already difficult situations: an
employee working in Abuja, Nigeria became seriously ill. “Her husband
phoned BA twice to say she was ill. All the days she’s been away have
been X’ed out as if she were on strike. Her pay has been deducted and
she will get the letter saying her staff travel’s been taken away.
Everyone who’s been off sick has been told they’re staff travel’s been
taken away. A few people have managed to get it back but it’s people
with things like diabetes, illnesses that were on record.” The
motivation for the dragooning tactics is that the strike is “not going
the way the management though it was going to go”; BA had assumed they
would be able to carry on normal operations but compliance with the
strike has been too great.

Walsh broke off discussions with BA over Derek Simpson’s twittering, and
a similar pettiness faces the BA employees who go against the
management. “A group of pilots volunteered to work as cabin crew. A list
of names of these pilots was posted on Facebook. One person said, ‘is
that really [a pilot’s name]? Another person replied merely with the
letters ‘OMG’.” All people involved in the Facebook conversation have
been suspended and the person who posted the list of pilots’ names has
been sacked, even though the list of names was never made available to
the general public, only to BA employees.

Solidarity, both within BA and across the whole working class, is of
critical importance. “We’re all fighting for survival, fighting for a
job we’ve had for years and years and years. When I was a kid the miners
kept putting the lights off and I kept missing all my favorite
television programmes, but I kept putting the money in. I was supposed
to be on holiday this week and next week, but sometimes you have to say
‘this is more important’. I think people deserve a certain standard of

In addition to the lack of immediate solidarity, scabbing has further,
immediately dangerous repercussions: the breakdown of trust between
cabin crew and scabbing employees is endangering passengers’ lives.
Penny discusses the idea of “Crew Resource Management”: “One of the most
important things in flying is that the crew works together as a team.
Basically, it’s been proved that what makes everything work in an
emergency is if the crew is working as a team. What’s happening now is
that the flight crew are not talking to the cabin crew and vice versa.
They [scabs] are destroying one of the most important concepts in flight
safety.” As an example, she gives: “sometimes you smell strange things
in the cabin, sometimes it’s just fuel fumes blowing back into the
cabin. But sometimes those fumes can tell you something much worse —
oil on fire. If you’re afraid of the captain, you’re not going to tell
him, are you? And so the flight will continue until things get really
bad.” Poor communication, Penny says, caused the 1977 Tenerife airplane
tragedy, which killed 583 people.

Willie Walsh allows the strike to continue, though, backed up by the
anti-trade union laws. “Certainly, we’re not as free in Britain as you
are, say, in France. Other countries have much freer laws than we do.
We’re constantly monitored by the police.” The BA cabin crew “offered
£62.97 million [in cuts]. Willie Walsh said it was £10 million short.
Using his [Walsh’s] own estimate that strike action costs BA £7 million
each day, we’re already up to £84 million. This isn’t about money, this
is about breaking this union. That’s what he set to do, this is his
intention. BA isn’t about to fall out of the sky.”

“His initial idea was to go back to court. It’s only now that he hasn’t
been able to do that that he has approached Tony Woodley and asked for
further dialogue. He certainly didn’t want to settle; his idea was to
get the strike declared illegal. He certainly wasn’t interested in

Unite’s negotiators are still trying to get the best deal they can for
the strikers. “The deal that we’ve offered them gives them New Fleet,
which is the thing they were after. We have accepted change, we’ve
offered as much as we can to try and help BA in its supposed time of
falling revenue. It’s all been turned down so he can spend £84 million
(to date) on breaking the union.”

White commented on the SWP’s Saturday intervention into the BA-Unite
talks, which saw 100 SWP members — but no representatives of the cabin
crew — invading and attempting to occupy the ACAS building where
negotiations were taking place. “That really didn’t help anybody. I know
you should say their hearts are in the right place. We’re all socialists
in lots of ways, but each group has got to do their own negotiating and
it doesn’t help, a bunch of people barging in. It’s all right to join
the picketing. It probably did more damage to our cause. It certainly
didnt’ do anything positive.

What, then, can ordinary people and activists do to show support for the
BA strikers? “Everybody is welcome to join in at the picket line. People
are sending in donations. It’s  costing a lot of money for the crew to
keep going,. I take my hat off to the ones who have organised the picket
line. There’s a never-ending supply of pickets.” Donations can be sent
to: Unite House, 99 New Road, Harlington, Middlesex UB3 5BQ.

Penny expresses her hopes that the real story of the strikers gets into
the press. “The problem with the [mainstream] press is that they twist
the things we say.” The Daily Mail, for example, has blatantly
misrepresented the cabin crews’ pay, claiming they make £30,000 a year.
She explains the pay situation: “there are two groups within BA. One lot
are on old contracts, which stem from the days when BA was owned by the
government. Over the years, just because of the deals BA has done with
the staff, they are well paid by anyone’s standards — these are people
who are in charge of the big aircraft and they will have done 25-30
years with the company. 70% are on ‘new contracts’. The young ones are
on around £20,000 a year. We all have fairly low basic salaries and most
of our money is made up from our allowances from flying; if you don’t fly
then you really are stuck. If you don’t fly then you really don’t make
ends meet. People get a decent salary, they certainly get more than the
people at EasyJet and Ryanair for definite; it’s a career. The people
who are saying they’re overpaid are the people working for Sky News.
It’s just the fact that if you are at supposedly the top of a type of
job then you’re probably going to get paid more. Most of the people who
work for BA have come from other airlines. They start off at Ryanair or
EasyJet. It seems the mainstream press thinks everyone should earn the
lowest possible salaries.”

Penny closes with a summary of where the union stands now. “I think we
have done our best to try to give our offer to BA. BA had a deal. There
is no need for any of this but Walsh is interested not in the deal so
much as the demise of the union. If the union is gone, then he will be
able to do as he sees fit and who knows what that will entail down the
line. He destroyed Aer Lingus, he’s destroying British Airways now.


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