Build the fight back against cuts: Come to the NSSN conference

The mighty TUC demonstration on March 26th showed once and for all that workers in Britain are prepared to fight when well over 500,000 demonstrated in London. The National Shop Stewards Network is holding its 5th annual conference 19 days before 800,000 workers could take strike action on June 30th against the ConDem coalition’s attacks on public sector pensions. This year our conference will be discussing the practical steps that union reps and activists can take to make sure that on the strike day every city in Britain is filled with marching workers – sending a warning to the ConDems that the next step should be a one day general strike to stop them trying to make us pay for the bankers’ crisis.

The NSSN was initiated by the RMT in 2006 to try and build a real rank and file organisation in the trade unions. It has already shown its potential as an organiser of solidarity in early 2009 in the private sector disputes in Lindsey Oil Refinery, the Visteon occupation, Linamar and Vestas. This year, alongside our work in the anti-cuts movement, we have supported the 400 locked-out workers at BP Saltend in Hull, the blacklisted workers at the Olympic site, the victimised RMT tube workers and many other disputes.

Come to the NSSN conference and link up with hundreds of other workers facing the same issues in the workplace – in the private and public sector. We will be running sessions on the three big issues facing workers at the moment – Fighting to defend public sector pensions, saving the NHS and fighting for the very right to strike and organise, including ending the blacklist and victimisation.

To register in advance for the conference online, go here. Alternatively, email info@shopstewards.net or phone 07816 134 690. Tickets cost £5.

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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.

Unite suspends ballot on cabin crew deal

In a dramatic turn of events Unite the union has called off the current ballot on the latest deal to resolve the dispute between management and cabin crew.

This may well be due to it’s rejection by senior union reps of BASSA and Amicus Cabin Crew. In a brief statement joint General Secretary Tony Woodley said the union was unwilling to present the deal over the heads of “unwilling representatives”

“Under these circumstances I have suspended the ballot on the offer and will meet with all of our cabin crew representatives as a matter of urgency to consider the next steps.”

Air Strike will carry a longer article analysing this development shortly.

Air Strike is back online

Regular readers of Air Strike will have noted the recent state of hibernation the blog has entered into.

We are pleased to announce this is coming to an end. With the departure of Willie Walsh to AIG and the company reporting a return to profitability we believe a new chapter is opening up for industrial struggles at British Airways. Of course this does not mean that managements drive to erode working conditions and trade union rights is at an end, far from it. It does, however, indicate that new developments are in the offing.

Air Strike will once again be updated more regularly to cover these events. To bridge the gap between posts we will publish material the Socialist Party has carried recently. The first article will deal with the anti-trade union laws and the second is a brief commentary on the proposed deal to resolve the cabin crew dispute. Finally we will carry a more up to date post on the prospects of the deal gaining acceptance from cabin crew.

Cabin crew reject management offer

Cabin crew have voted by a comfortable majority to reject the latest offer from British Airways management. Unite, which represents 90% of BA’s 12,000 cabin crew announced that 67% had rejected the deal.

The Guardian reports the result has come as a shock to “BA watchers”. We can only conclude that these watchers have not being paying attention over the last few months.

The offer itself was a poor one as the Socialist Party has outlined before. Among other weaknesses it left the issue of the “New Fleet” unresolved and failed to restore the staff travel discount to cabin crew who had taken strike action. Cabin crew have shown time and again they are willing to take action to defend their terms and conditions despite the ferocious pressure from management.

All eyes will now turn to the ballot for strike action.

Mistaken occupation of BA talks

The decision by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) members, at the end of the Right to Work conference, to occupy the talks between British Airways management and Unite this afternoon was completely mistaken.

Whatever the nature of the deal being negotiated, it is for the Cabin crew workers to decide their attitude to it. The actions of the SWP were completely counter-productive.

Interviews on the picket line

Interview on picket line 29th March 2010

The following is an interview taken with two friendly female pickets on Monday 29th March. Both of them have over 20 years experience with the company. Although they have different perspectives on the dispute they were both as one in their determination to stand up to BA management.

Air Strike (AS): Round two of the battle between cabin crew and BA. How do you feel its going so far?

Female Picket 1 (FP1): Excellent, lots of support from the guys out on the pickets line and loads of support from the guys out there (points to passing cars).

Female Picket 2 (FP2): I think the tide is starting to turn. People are starting to realise what this is all about and as I’ve said before the only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them. I’m amazed at the support.

AS: It’s becoming increasingly clear this dispute is not about money, it’s about smashing the union. Can you give your thoughts on that?

FP1: I agree. I think its absolutely the case. I don’t think it was ever about saving money because there was money on the table, he (Willie Walsh) could have taken it, he didn’t want it and that should speak volumes.

FP2: Five years ago we knew the writing was on the wall when Willie Walsh took over as our CEO. Two years ago when a document was leaked called ‘Operation Columbus’ (see end note 1) and now this is happening. If this was really about a fight for survival then he would have accepted all the help that was on offer from his employees and all the money that he could have saved. Hopefully now people have realised that this is about breaking the union.

AS: It seems quite clear that breaking the union is so they can increase profitability, increase the bonus’s for him (Walsh), how does that make you feel considering the media have tried to portray you as greedy?

FP1: How does it make me feel? Well pretty angry! It’s not the case, we’re working class people. We do a good job on the aircraft and off the aircraft as well. We work very hard, we give our heart and souls. We are the ones at the coal face, at the front of the airline. These people are disgusting because they are hiding in their offices, the managers, Willie Walsh and all his entourage they’re hiding in their offices, they’re not facing the passengers day-to-day like us so yeah I’m angry because I think it’s a load of old rubbish.

FP2: I feel in a way quite differently. I think there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to work for the best company in the world. I think in every industry there will be employees who want to get more than another because their pay and conditions are better. I’ve been with the company 25 years and all the way through we were told that we were the best of the best. We are professionals and we are passionate about the job that we do. I am now a Cabin Service Director (CSD) I went for the job five times and worked very hard to get the role that I have. I’m an onboard manager and I make no apologies for what I earn. I spend a lot of time dealing with customer issues that I don’t get paid for, I do it at home as a lot of managers do but I am very, very passionate about the job I do and it’s absolutely disgusts me what he is trying to do to his front based customer staff. We are part of the product of the company. We are the fifth P (see end note 2) in the marketing mix. Every other airline utilises that. You look at Singapore Airlines where the Singapore girl is the fifth P. Even Virgin do it, they capitalise on their staff. I think it is a big mistake to demoralise the most precious asset you have in a business and I think he is wrong.

AS: You’re a CSD, BA management have tried to portray the CSD’s as the root of the problem. Can you explain the role of a CSD ad the impact the changes to the role of the CSD will have on the service?

FP2:Well as a CSD before (the changes) you weren’t involved in giving out meals. The implication (by management) is that you weren’t doing any work. Well that’s completely wrong. My job is as the on board customer service manager, the on board performance manager. What other job do you have 15 minutes to create a team with 15 people that you have never met before in your life? You’re going to be going away with them for up to 9 days at a time and you have to nurture them through that and support them, live with them, motivate them and deal with any issues you have during that period. It’s a very responsible job, during that time your liaising with ground staff, with flight crew with customers and at the moment as a CSD your getting it in the neck from everybody. Your not only being bullied from the management but I’m getting it in the neck from the ground staff, from flight crew, from the passengers and even from some of the crew and I’ve never felt more stressed about anything in my life. It pains me to be standing here today but I also passionately believe that what we are doing is right. BA should protect what it is. We are a premium airline not a low cost carrier.

AS: The second round of strikes are coming to an end. What do you think is going to happen next? What do you think is needed to bring management to the table?

FP1: Difficult to say really. I think the strike will go on. I see the fight still very much there.

FP2: It worries me what’s going to happen next. As I’ve said the union is only as strong as it’s members. If it has been well supported and the company has suffered then it becomes a political issue as well. The general election is coming up so there is pressure on the government to get involved in this. So I think that will have an influence on what will happen next. It worries me that he (Walsh) won’t give anything at all. Hopefully there has been enough damage that he (Walsh) will realise that we are not going to back down, that we are strong about this and we will carry on.

AS: The RMT are going out on strike next week, gas workers are going out on strike. Are you encouraged to see other workers taking action, that it’s not just you fighting on your own?

FP1: Well it shows me that there is a style of management going round that is detrimental to the workforce, it’s not just in our company it seems to be in other companies as well. If they do go out on strike, well it just shows that we are at the forefront of this and hopefully it will encourage other people to stand up and fight for their rights because that’s what it is all about.

FP2: I personally think it weakens our case. I think there is a danger a perception will develop that unions have too much power. So it worries me that everyone is going on strike at the moment. I’d rather things were staggered just a little as I think it weakens us.

End note 1: ‘Operation Colombus’ was a secret document drawn up by Hewitt Associates, an American outsourcing and corporate restructuring specialist at the behest of BA management over two years ago. Among other things it proposed changes to cabin crew work practices similar to what BA has now imposed. 

End note 2: In traditional marketing orthodoxy selling an item is summarised as the “four P’s”; Product, Place, Promotion, Price. Recently a “fifth P” has been added, People. The idea being that the people involved in producing and delivering the product i.e. the workers, are intrinsic to the health of a business.