The view from a GMB activist at BA

British Airways is a company with a long tradition of union organisation. Although the cabin crew dispute by Unite members has recently taken centre stage in public consciousness there are other sections of Unite and other trade unions who are also working to defend the interests of workers at BA.

In this article we carry an interview with an activist from GMB x54 branch, who very kindly agreed to speak with us. Unfortunately given the North Korean style ban on free speech currently prevailing at British Airways the activist has asked to remain anonymous.

Air Strike: Can you briefly explain to our readers a little bit about GMB x54? Which workers in BA do you cover? Which National Sectional Panels are you on? How big is the branch? Any notable industrial struggles or disputes you have had with your employer in the recent past?

GMB Activist: Branch x54 of the GMB is primarily for terminal based staff at Heathrow airport. We cover check in staff, reservations agents, aircraft dispatchers as well as a variety of other management and A Scale staff based at Heathrow. We represent around 800 members approximately over both Terminal 3 & 5 as well as some staff based at Waterside (the BA headquarters) and sit on the A Scale NSP. Branch x54, along with our other GMB Heathrow branches was represented by GMB members at the BA AGM in 2009. We wanted to give a positive message to the shareholders and to say to Willie Walsh and the board to stop “talking down” the company. (this is a copy of the letter we distributed http://www.gmbinba.org/x54/pdf/GMBBAShareholderlttrv3.pdf). The GMB hired the assistance of 12 lemmings in an attempt to signify that BA workers deserve better than to be led by lemmings.

Air Strike: Where did you manage to hire 12 lemmings?!? What was the reaction of the shareholders when you showed up with a dozen lemmings in tow?

GMB Activist: I’m not quite sure where the Lemmings came from. I know we did have the RSPCA on hand at one point though!

There was mixed reaction from the shareholders. Some we spoke to thought that Willie Walsh had “lost the plot” and that he should “stop talking the airline into the ground”. Pleasing to hear the support, although there were some shareholders who were less supportive of course, as you can probably imagine!

Air Strike: What is your view of the current dispute between cabin crew and management?

GMB Activist: We believe that this dispute could have been avoided. Airlines by their very nature are cyclical. British Airways posted £922 million in pre tax profit in 2008 / 2009 and we believe that BA will be profitable again. We all agree that we can change certain things we do in the way we work but only through meaningful negotiation and not through intimidation and imposition.  This dispute is an important one. While we want to see a rapid conclusion to it, we don’t want to see that at the detriment of our crew colleagues or any other BA staff. Strike action is the last option and unfortunately our crew sisters and brothers have been left with no alternative but to withdraw their labour. We hope both sides can reach an agreement and that the company stops their recent bullish behaviour against striking crew.

Air Strike: What actions have the branch taken to support the dispute?

GMB Activist: We have visited the picket lines and Bedfont football club on many occasions during the strike action to lend our support to our cabin crew colleagues in dispute with the company.

Air Strike: It seems clear from his public statements and behaviour that Walsh is out to defeat cabin crew in a set piece dispute. How has the course of this dispute effected the mood of activists in GMB x54. Are you worried of similar treatment from management in the near future?

GMB Activist: Our talks are still on going as are a variety of “robustness trials” to see the effect of head count reductions on the operation. Our red line items still apply, such as no to outsourcing, no to compulsory redundancies and no to new starter contracts – to name but a few. Once the trials are complete it will be up to the members to decide the way forward. Again the best way for this to work will be through meaningful negotiation and not from imposition.

Air Strike: In the negotiations prior to the second round of strike action Walsh introduced a raft of new conditions including changes to the 1948 Redeployment Agreement and renegotiation of trade union facility time. These are agreements that cover the whole of the company. Do you think this is an attack on the whole of the workforce at BA? Could this be the basis for united action across the company against management?

GMB Activist: One of our red line issues is that of keeping the redeployment agreement and careerlink as it currently stands. While our talks are currently ongoing it is difficult to make any judgement on this area.

Air Strike: But if the company does force through change to company wide agreements on the back of victimising cabin crew, using scab armies etc; won’t that put you in a more difficult negotiation position? One of the ideas the Socialist Party has been putting forward in this dispute is the need to widen the action across the company in order to stop managements union busting drive. Obviously there are issues with the anti-trade union laws that make that difficult. It’s clear that most sections of the BA workforce have some sort of grievance with the employers. What we have suggested is that BASSA stewards invite stewards from the rest of the company to discuss coordinating action. For example if other sections were to demand no changes to company wide agreements this could be the basis for moving to ‘failure to agree’ and initiating the ballot process. In this way Walsh would be facing disputes on several fronts, making contingency plans much more difficult. What do you think of this idea?

GMB Activist: I definitely think we could achieve more as a united workforce rather than the fragmented position we find ourselves in. There is concern that corporate wide agreements will get altered during any crew negotiations and we need to keep a close eye on this. Walsh seems to be playing this one very cleverly. We need to push forward with our talks to prevent changes to company wide agreements, hopefully avoiding the need for any industrial action along the way.

Air Strike: One of Walsh’s key weapons against cabin crew has been the use of scab labour. GMB has come out strongly against its members scabbing. Unfortunately BALPA have had a much more ambivalent stance. What is your view of the behaviour of BALPA? Do you think it has had a negative impact on the strike and on inter union relations at the company?

GMB Activist: The GMB as a trade union doesn’t support the use of other staff to cover striking workers. It is a shame all unions at BA haven’t got similar views on this issue and feel BALPA as a trade union should be against BA’s recent tactics.

We haven’t noticed problems between the unions at BA but the use of volunteer crew is causing a divide in the workforce and not just between ground staff and crew but between colleagues in the same department too.  It makes the working environment uncomfortable at times and even though this strike is a big issue it is very much frowned upon to discuss it even in the rest rooms.  In the long run this will affect staff moral and the overall ability to deliver excellent customer service, an important part of how BA operates.

Air Strike: The courts have been regularly used to disrupt strike action in this dispute. What is your opinion on the role of the anti-trade union laws? What do you think the trade union movement should do about them?

GMB Activist: Anti-trade union rules are really in the favour of big business and not the workers. Trade Unions have to make sure their ballots are watertight as we have now entered a new period where bosses will do anything to stop strike action and not just by meaningful talks. Trade unions have to be on top of everything they do to make sure it is within the current laws. There is very little hope that these laws will be overturned under the current coalition.

For more information on GMB x54 go to their website http://gmbinba.org/x54/ or follow them on Twitter www.twitter.com/gmbx54

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