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 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

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)

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…