Peace in our time? The agreement between cabin crew and management.

Copy write: Paul Mattsson/The Socialist

On 12 May at a mass members’ meeting, Unite British Airways cabin crew voted to put the latest agreement between the union and management to a ballot of the membership. This appears to be the final chapter in one of the longest running disputes in Britain for a generation.

Since a mass meeting in October 2009 voted overwhelmingly to ballot for strike action there have been a number of twists and turns in this epic battle.

The original dispute was sparked off by management’s plans to alter the terms and conditions of cabin crew. Chief among these changes was a reduction of in-flight staffing numbers and the introduction of new cabin crew on much worse pay and conditions. To give just one example new crew are now given less than a day’s rest between long haul flights to Las Vegas. The turnover rate among new crew, who have been operating at the company since 2009 is reported to be high as many burn out from physical exhaustion.  Given the amount of time and money that goes into training cabin crew this high turn over rate simply underlines the self-defeating nature of eroding terms and conditions in pursuit of a short-term boost to profits and of course, executive bonuses.

These changes were imposed on cabin crew without the agreement of the union. In these circumstances cabin crew had no option but to fight in order to maintain the credibility of their union as a force that could effectively defend their interests.

But the cabin crew were unable to win a quick early victory. Among the reasons for this were the anti-trade union laws, the long delays in action and the failure to broaden the dispute across the entire workforce.

While the cabin crew and their elected reps showed tremendous determination, serious question marks must hang over the conduct of the national union leadership during the course of this dispute. It is clear that management was able to impose change on cabin crew because they were isolated from other sections of the workforce at the company. This allowed management more time to organise to counter the dispute. Special mention must go to the leadership of the pilots union BALPA who played an absolutely baleful role in this dispute. Despite the fact that a significant number of pilots acted as “volunteer” cabin crew during days of strike action, BALPA refused to issue a public statement advising members not to engage in scab behaviour. In a statement issued in January 2010 BALPA General Secretary Jim McAuslan said

“We understand a number of pilots have responded to BA’s call for volunteers to keep the airline operating through any strike and from their postings it is clear that this is out of concern for their own futures and that of other employees.

“For the avoidance of doubt, Balpa’s position on this is neutral and we will not dictate to our members.”

This is in contrast to the GMB who correctly advised their members it was not in their interests to undermine a dispute of their fellow BA workers.

From the resulting stalemate management went on the offensive, refusing to substantially negotiate and embarking on a vindictive witch-hunt against union members.

Staff travel concessions were withdrawn from those who had taken lawful strike action while leading Unite stewards were disciplined and even sacked. Trade union facility time agreements were effectively torn up.

Documents leaked to the Guardian reported on management plans to sideline the main cabin crew Unite branch BASA (British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association). The dispute had morphed into a battle to maintain the continued existence of  the union among crew.

The union failed to reverse the imposed changes and since December the focus of industrial action has centred on pushing back management’s witch-hunt against staff and limiting the worst effects of the impositions. This included the reduction in pay resulting from more lucrative longer haul routes being assigned to newer crew on inferior pay.

The key demands in the final ballot for strike action were the following:

The immediate restoration of staff travel concessions, in full, to the crew from whom they were taken by BA. Binding arbitration, through ACAS, of all cabin crew disciplinary cases related to the original dispute.

The restoration of all earnings docked from crew who were off sick during strike dates.

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.

Reading through the terms of the new agreement it appears these demands have been partially accepted by the company. Staff travel will be restored once the agreement is implemented. On the issue of victimisations management has agreed to binding arbitration at ACAS.

Socialists are clear that ACAS is no friend of the trade union movement, nevertheless putting the final decision regarding disciplinaries in their hands is an improvement on the situation where the decision rested with management and was being used as a method to witch-hunt trade unionists. However it is unclear at the present time whether this covers sacked activists such as Duncan Holley, BASSA branch secretary, who took his case to an employment tribunal and lost.

The agreement also pledges to honour existing trade union facility time, a big concession from management who had previously been attempting to disrupt the operation of the union among cabin crew by often refusing to grant reps time off to carry out union duties.

This is entirely due to the resilience of cabin crew under the most unbelievable bullying and harassment by an entirely vindictive management, not to mention constant vilification in the media.

However readers of the Air Strike should be clear that as far as the original industrial dispute is concerned, cabin crew were unable to reverse the attacks. There now exists a significant cohort of new starters among cabin crew with much worse terms and conditions. They will exist as a separate bargaining unit to ‘older’ cabin crew on better terms and conditions whose numbers over time will diminish due to natural wastage.

It cannot be ruled out that management will return at a future date looking for yet more concessions from cabin crew and will hope to play off different sections of cabin crew against each other. There are fears among reps in other sections of the BA workforce that the contract of new cabin crew may be applied to the rest of the company.

As the largest union in BA Unite was in a unique position to bring about a more united approach. It would be naïve to believe this could be easily done or that there were not pre-existing divisions amongst the workforce that management could exploit. Nevertheless there were a number of steps Unite could have taken in order to overcome this.

For example, once it became clear BA management were intent on union-busting, Unite could have called a meeting of all senior trade unions reps at the company to put the case for cabin crew to the wider workforce. During the course of this two-year dispute, other sections of Unite at BA were also in dispute with management. At the very least the union could have explored ways to coordinate action between the different sections. It would appear there was no attempt to do so and the opportunity of bringing the maximum pressure to bear on management was lost.

Although the joint agreement is littered with ringing phrases committing the company and Unite to a new era of amity and cooperation, this will prove to be short-lived as the global economy stagnates and oil prices continue to rise remorselessly. In order to maintain profit levels management will return at some point in the not too distant future demanding further concessions in pay, terms and conditions from staff. Thanks to the steadfastness of cabin crew, workers at BA will have the benefit of strong union representation to defend against further attacks but the main lesson to be drawn from this dispute in the future is that isolation of sections strengthens the hand of management.


The rejected deal: What was on offer?

In the furore surrounding the cabin crews decision to take 20 days strike action and the subsequent High Court injunction the details of the last-minute negotiations between Unite and BA management have gone largely unremarked.

The court injunction relates to the February strike re-ballot of cabin crew, in which 81% voted in favour of strike action in a 79% turnout. Subsequently, in May, an overwhelming majority of the cabin crew, 81% in a 71% turnout, voted in an online poll to reject the latest BA management ‘offer’. The Unite negotiators had recommended rejection of the offer. Tony Woodley, Unite joint general secretary, spelt out the reasons for this as being:  “BA had failed to restore travel perks taken away from those who went on strike and disciplinary action was being taken against more than 50 union members”. You can read an outline of the deal and cabin crew’s reasons for rejecting it here.

While these issues were very important reasons for rejecting the deal, other issues should also be cited as reasons. These include the setting up of new fleet on poorer pay and conditions; and changes to the present crews’ redeployment agreement that would make it easier for management to make compulsory redundancies. In other words, many of the original attacks on the cabin crews’ contracts and longer term interests remain in place as far as the BA bosses are concerned. 

It is entirely understandable that cabin crew wish to see a speedy resolution of this dispute. They have been working under the most intense pressure from management for the better part of a year. It is clear from the behaviour of management that their ultimate aim is the destruction of union organisation at the company in order to completely clear out the terms and conditions currently enjoyed by BA workers. At the moment the strategy of management is to defeat cabin crew in a head on confrontation. However, even if management are forced to concede on travel perks and disciplinary action, the latest offer would significantly weaken the union and the terms and conditions of cabin crew.  Then when management inevitably came for the next round of cuts they would be in a stronger position to enforce them. In this way the weakening of the unions at BA could be achieved over a longer timescale than that aimed at by Walsh.  It is preference for this more long-term strategy that is probably at the root of recent criticism of Walsh from City business strategists and rumored splits on the BA board.  The destination is not in question, simply the means to get there.

Other sections of the BA workforce should also take heed of what BA management is demanding. Just as concessions in terms and conditions made by other sections of the workforce are being used as a stick to beat cabin crew, so too will any deal that seriously undermines the terms and conditions of crew form the basis of new cuts for them. In particular changes to trade union facility time and renegotiation of the 1948 Redeployment Agreement would eventually affect every worker at BA.

(We will publish a more in-depth analysis of the 1948 Redeployment Agreement shortly)

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

GMB and BALPA respond to management call for “volunteers” during cabin crew strike

In a letter sent on Monday British Airways management called on staff to “volunteer” to train as cabin crew in the event of strike action taking place.
Unite has condemned the move as trying to break a strike with “scab labour who have had minimum training”.
British Airways management have made confident noises that they can train up scabs in 21 days, the minimum time to certify cabin crew.
The other unions present at BA have released statements responding to managements call.

First up GMB National Officer Mick Rix with a clear message that aiding management in its battle with cabin crew is not in GMB members interest.

“For those who are unsure and may consider taking up the company offer, please discuss this matter first with your GMB rep. It is not in our collective interests to seek to undermine another union, or undertake another BA worker job.”

BALPA (representing pilots) have put out a much more ambivalent message. In his statement BALPA General Secretary Jim McAuslan acknowledged that some BA pilots had indeed signed up to act as scab labour if strike action takes place. While BALPA does not officially endorse the actions of “volunteers” neither do they call on their members to avoid undermining their college’s strike:

“For the avoidance of doubt, BALPA’s position on this is neutral and we will not dictate to our members”

One can only speculate what the position of BALPA might be if pilots could be trained and certified to fly in 21 days…