Cabin Crew Fight Enters A Critical Stage

On January 21st Unite cabin crew once again showed their resilience by voting overwhelmingly for strike action.

It is worth reminding readers that this particular battle began with a ballot for strike action in late October 2009. Since that time there have been four strike ballots, two injunctions by the courts to prevent strike action, a barrage of hostile media coverage, constant harassment of union activists by management, up to and including dismissal and most importantly over 30 days of strike action. In these circumstances it is nothing short of remarkable that a solid core of cabin crew are still prepared to vote for strike action after 15 months of the most intense pressure and struggle.

Starting out as a battle over impositions to members contracts, cabin crew were faced with no option but to take the road of industrial action in the face of an employer who was not willing to negotiate. In the course of this dispute the battle has now morphed into a fight to maintain union organisation among cabin crew. This dispute will also be a crucial test for the new Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey. Many of those who campaigned and voted for McCluskey will be keenly watching this face off with BA management to see if he can deliver on his campaign promises to build a more effective, fighting union.

The issues in this ballot are straightforward. Cabin crew are calling for the removal of sanctions taken against their members as a result of taking part in lawful strike action and for the right of the union to organise itself amongst the workforce. A pre-ballot letter from Unite national officers to BA management in November last year put forward the demands in this dispute:

1.    The immediate restoration of staff travel concessions, in full, to the crew from whom they were taken by BA.
2.    Binding arbitration, through ACAS, of all cabin crew disciplinary cases related to the original dispute.
3.    The restoration of all earnings docked from crew who were genuinely off sick during strike dates.
4.    Full and proper discussion of the trade union facilities agreement at the company with the immediate removal of all threats and sanctions made by BA in relation to this.

The first and second demands are crucial. If they were to be won in the face of  management’s refusal to negotiate and a vindictive campaign to punish cabin crew for taking part in lawful strike action then this would be a victory for the union. A slight health warning should be attached to the idea that ACAS is a neutral body however. ACAS is just as much part of the state machine as the courts that have continually prevented cabin crew from taking reasonable strike action to defend their terms and conditions. It is no friend of the trade union movement. Nevertheless with management insisting that disciplinary matters will remain “an internal matter for the company” (i.e. a witch hunt against union activists) then binding arbitration by ACAS will be an improvement on the current situation.

For those who have been involved in or following this dispute the question will inevitably arise as to why there has not been a ballot on the issue of imposed changes to cabin crews contracts? The leadership of Amicus Cabin Crew (the smaller of the two Unite cabin crew branches) have been particularly vocal on this question.

It was entirely correct for both cabin crew branches to go for strike action when it became clear that management were not prepared to enter into meaningful negotiations. To have meekly accepted imposition of new terms would not have halted management attacks on cabin crews terms and conditions. On the contrary it would simply have whetted managements appetite to go after even more concessions. Capitulation would also have destroyed the credibility of the union as a fighting force that could resist management diktats which would in turn have further emboldened Walsh & co’s bullying tactics. Although the union has not yet won a victory this has not been due to a lack of willingness on the part of cabin crew to take action as the numerous industrial ballots and days of strike action have demonstrated.

It is the isolation of cabin crew while they have faced the full fury of management that has brought them to the point where they are now fighting to maintain the existence of the union as a body that can effectively represent cabin crews interests. This does not mean that the battle to preserve cabin crew’s working conditions has been lost forever. In the struggle between workers and bosses there are no final victories or defeats so long as the workers can maintain their union intact. The forerunners of the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT), the NUR  found themselves in a similar position to cabin crew when British Rail was privatised. The various franchise operators used the fragmentation of the workforce to ram through drastic changes to the terms and conditions of NUR members. Despite these severe setbacks union organisation was maintained and over the years the NUR and later the RMT were able to win back much of what was lost.

In order to reach this point it is vital for cabin crew to bring a halt to managements union busting and win this dispute. The lessons of the dispute so far are clear. Delays in taking action and isolation of cabin crew only serve to strengthen management. Since the result of the ballot was announced Unite have yet to name a date for strike action. Unite may well have done this in the belief that this will aid negotiations. However the record of BA management shows that prevarication simply allows them more time to prepare for the inevitable industrial action that results from management intransigence. The deadline for Unite to announce strike dates is February 18th. It would be better for Unite to name the dates for strike action as soon as possible. It can then use the time to call mass meetings to build the momentum towards strike action. It should also invite workers from other sections of BA. This can be a step towards ending the isolation of cabin crew by putting their case directly to the workforce and suggesting practical steps that can be taken to assist them.

The fate of cabin crew will have a direct effect on other sections of BA’s workforce. With the new “mixed fleet” new entrants to cabin crew have gone from having the best conditions in the industry to some of the worst in one fell swoop. There is no question that profit hungry management and shareholders will be looking to extend these new contracts throughout the company. Already there are unconfirmed reports that BA plans to set up a call centre in Newcastle where workers will be employed on the same poverty contracts as new cabin crew.

The consequences flowing from this dispute could not be starker. Defeat for cabin crew will be the green light for management to start imposing changes to other sections of the workforce. Union power at the company would suffer a severe blow. On the other hand victory for cabin crew would draw a line on managements continual offensive against union organisation at the company. It is vital therefore that Unite takes a leaf out of managements book and mobilises every means at it’s disposal in order to protect the interests of its members.


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