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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The Struggle Continues: Cabin Crew Vote ‘Yes’ To Strike Action.

For the fourth time in 13 months British Airways cabin crew have voted over whelming to take strike action. The ballot released on Friday returned a 78.5% vote in favour of strike action in a turnout of 7,335 members.

Readers of Air Strike will recall the original dispute with British Airways was over the issue of imposition of changes to cabin crew’s employment contract. This strike ballot is largely around issues that have arisen out of the original industrial action taken by cabin crew last year. According to a pre ballot letter sent by Unite national officers to BA management in November this industrial ballot will demand the following terms from management.

  • An 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 dispute
  • Restoration of the wages docked from crew who were genuinely 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.

At the time of writing Unite has not announced dates for strike action. Commenting on the ballot result Unite General Secretary elect called for BA management to come to the negotiating table; “Surely BA management must now wake up and listen to the voice of their skilled and dedicated employees. This dispute will be resolved by negotiation, not litigation or confrontation, and it is to negotiation that BA management should now apply itself.  We are ready.” This call was echoed by BASSA branch secretary Duncan Holley.

Banking on management opening negotiations in the face of an overwhelming ballot may explain the delay in calling strike action. Given the past behaviour of BA management failure to enter into serious negotiations this is may well prove to be a vain hope.

Much of management propaganda in the course of the dispute has centred on the supposed financial difficulties of the company. BA has now returned to profitability and yet it continues to obstruct a resolution of this dispute and persecute trade union activists. It is a transparent case of union busting on the part of BA management. Should BA cabin crew decide to take strike action they will have the support of the labour movement behind them once again to defeat this intransigent management vendetta against trade unionism.

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.

BA bosses try to control union

This article was carried in The Socialist newspaper on 27th October

The latest offer by British Airways management to cabin crew aimed at resolving this long running dispute was released on 20 October. The deal is broadly similar to the one rejected in August, although there is a slightly improved pay offer for existing crew.

On the burning question of the staff travel discount, which was removed by management as punishment for taking industrial action, there is also a slight improvement. Certain aspects of the discount were re-instated on 21 October. The remainder of the discount will not be restored until 1 April 2013. There are also guarantees about preserving existing terms and conditions.

However these slight concessions are dwarfed by some truly astounding conditions management have foisted on the union. First of all the union was forced to recommend the offer to members otherwise the deal would have been withdrawn. Not content with this interference into internal union democracy, BA are insisting that any future communications by the union with cabin crew be ‘fair and balanced’. Presumably the company will be the arbiter of this.

In a grotesque inversion of reality the company insists it “will continue to ensure that its communications are balanced and objective.”

There appears to be no mention of reinstating union members who lost their jobs during the dispute. The deal also stipulates that if a victimised employee goes beyond the ACAS process and takes legal action, Unite will offer no financial or legal support.

Although there are certain guarantees of a pay rise these are conditional on the absence of industrial action over the lifetime of the agreement. In effect a no strike agreement.

Finally, new entrants will be on inferior terms and conditions. At a stroke, cabin crew at BA have gone from having the best terms and conditions in the industry to a section of crew having some of the worst.

If the deal is rejected Unite will immediately issue a ballot for further strike action. On the basis of this offer, rejection is in the best interests of cabin crew and workers at BA as a whole. The interference into internal union affairs by management is the thin end of the wedge.

If a new ballot is launched, Unite should invite the senior reps of the other sections of the BA workforce, including members of other unions, to a meeting to discuss practical steps to support further cabin crew action and defend trade union rights at the company.

Fighting the anti-trade union laws

Trade Unionists lobbying parliament - trying to persuade at least 100 MPs to turn up at John McDonnell's Lawful Industrial Action bill's second reading, to prevent the Tories crushing it, photo Suzanne Beishon

This article was originally carried in The Socialist newspaper on October 20th.

On 22 October, two days after the government announces its savage public spending cuts, left Labour MP John McDonnell’s Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill has its second reading. The Bill aims to change the law to prevent the courts granting employers injunctions against strike action because of minor technical errors in industrial action ballots. (Since the publication of this article the Bill failed to get it’s second reading because not enough Labour MP’s bothered to turn up to vote for it. Editor)

Jim Horton

If allowed to fall, the government’s axe to public spending will result in a devastation of public services. Tens of thousands of public sector workers will lose their jobs. Private sector workers will not be immune from the jobs cull. Those remaining in work face a management offensive against their terms and conditions.

Decisive in stopping the Con-Dem assault will be industrial action by public sector unions. Yet in their arsenal the bosses have a raft of anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher, which New Labour refused to repeal when they were in power.

In the past year several unions, including Unite and the RMT, have had strike action thwarted by the courts’ application of a strict interpretation of the onerous balloting and notification procedures of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (TULRCA). This is despite huge majorities in ballots.

Most notoriously on two occasions Unite members working for British Airways fell foul of the court’s pro-big business bias. In December 2009 cabin crew voted for strike action by a margin of 92.5% on a ballot turnout of 80% of 12,000 workers. Scandalously the courts granted BA an injunction because a handful of members who voted had already accepted redundancy. And again in May this year BA initially successfully used the High Court to frustrate a strike of BA cabin staff, 80% of whom had voted for action. This was on the flimsy grounds that Unite had failed to comprehensively communicate that out of 9,282 ballots cast, eleven (0.1%) were spoiled. Unite had put the full result, including spoilt ballot papers, on its website and union notice boards. In both instances the claimed minor flaws made absolutely no difference to the ballot result. Although Unite’s appeal against the ruling was upheld, this was not a harbinger of changed legal bias in favour of the unions.

Last year the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Metrobus against Unite’s 90% vote in favour of strike action, claiming that the 20 hours it took the union to notify the employers of the result did not comply with the legal requirement to notify ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’. Furthermore, the union had failed to explain that the number of members to be balloted had been taken from its central computer. Again these ‘defects’ did not affect the overwhelming support for action.

Also last year EDF won a High Court injunction against the RMT on the grounds that the union’s notice to EDF which described 65 members as engineers/technicians did not give their precise job description.

Section 232b of the TULRCA states that ‘accidental’ errors made ‘on a scale unlikely to affect the result of the ballot’ should be disregarded. However, as recent decisions have revealed, the courts have given an unfavourable interpretation of ‘accidental’ and declared that notices to employers are not included in the protection.

John McDonnell’s Bill should be supported by all trade unionists. Its provisions state that all small accidental failures in ballots and notices, and minor errors in the information about the ballot result, will be disregarded; and the burden of proof will shift so that the evidence required will be that of ‘substantial compliance’. At the same time the unions’ sponsored MPs should put down a motion in parliament calling for the abolition of all the anti-trade union laws.

There is no right to strike under British law. Every industrial action is a breach of the employment contract leaving the union exposed to being sued for damages by the employer. Since 1906 there has been statutory protection from common law where industrial action was in contemplation of or furtherance to an industrial dispute. In the 1980s Thatcher limited the scope of this protection and enacted the additional hurdles of the complex balloting and notification procedures.

In the unlikely event that McDonnell’s Bill reaches the statute books, the vast bulk of the anti-union laws will remain in place. The whole history of industrial relations law also shows that the courts are more than willing to interpret any law in the bosses’ favour.

In fact workers now face further legal restrictions on their rights. Citing increased labour tensions, the employers’ organisation the CBI is pushing for a tightening of the ballot rules so that a strike can only go ahead if a minimum of 40% of the balloted workforce supports it (in addition to a simple majority of those voting). In the past the Tories have proposed the removal of immunity for industrial action that has a disproportionate or excessive effect, which potentially could apply to all strike action.

Some unions are looking towards the European Court of Human Rights to provide a bit of legal protection, but recent decisions of the European Court of Justice have placed the economic interests of the bosses ahead of the ‘disproportionate’ effect of workers asserting their rights.

No trade unionist would lightly risk sequestration of a union’s funds by recklessly ignoring the law. But in the months and years ahead big industrial battles loom. Where the bosses’ anti-union laws are used to frustrate majority support for strike action, or where its provisions act as a shackle on workers taking unavoidable spontaneous or solidarity action, then in such circumstances the unions will have no choice but to support the ‘unlawful’ but justified action of their members.

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.

Talks resume at British Airways

Negotiations between BA management and Unite cabin crew representatives resumed on 2 August and are continuing at the time of writing. These are negotiations that the arrogant Willie Walsh was not expecting to have, as he seemed confident of pushing through a shoddy deal. This was decisively rejected by 67%, in a ballot of Unite members.

Greg Maughan

That a solid majority were willing to vote to reject this deal, after 22 days of strike action and without a clear recommendation from the national leadership of Unite, shows the determination of cabin crew to see this struggle through to a successful conclusion. It also shows the deep-seated anger at Walsh’s bullying, ultimatumist managing style.

The deal offered gave no commitments on the issues that triggered the dispute and included linking travel allowances to a ‘no-strike’ clause. The Socialist Party was clear in calling for a ‘No’ vote on this deal; this was also the attitude of the majority of cabin crew.

But in another provocative move, Willie Walsh has proceeded to roll out the rejected offer amongst the 10% of cabin crew who are non-unionised. This is a further attempt to divide cabin crew and undermine the union’s collective bargaining agreement, which has been key in winning the pay and conditions that cabin crew have attained over the years.

Much has been made in the press of BA’s financial situation, with first quarter losses of £164 million, due to a combination of the impact of the Icelandic volcano, strike action and the state of the wider economy. Walsh has attempted to paint strikers as ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’. In reality, his hard-man posturing is costing BA millions.

Unite estimates it would cost £10 million to settle the dispute, a mere fraction of what the union estimates BA has lost so far as a direct result of members’ action.

Yet Walsh has gone into the current round of negotiations insisting that the deal which has just been rejected lays the basis for a resolution of the dispute!

There is nothing wrong with negotiating, but some cabin crew will be concerned that talks which do not seem to promise much are delaying a further strike ballot. Socialist Party members in Unite feel that a fresh strike ballot should be called now and take place whilst negotiations are on-going. The threat of further action would help exert pressure on Walsh during talks. It would also stop management from using negotiations which lead nowhere to attempt to scupper the momentum of the dispute.

Elsewhere in the aviation industry, 6,185 Unite members organised in BAA, including security staff, engineers, firefighters and support staff, are currently balloting for strike action over pay. This ballot closes on 12 August. Action here would affect flights at Heathrow, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. It seems common sense that if further strike action amongst cabin crew was coordinated with this, then the impact of both strikes would be increased.

At the same time, the attacks that cabin crew face are specifically designed to break the strongest and most densely unionised section of the BA workforce in preparation for rolling out attacks across the company.

Socialist Party members in Unite, the GMB and other unions organised at BA feel that while negotiations between cabin crew and BA management continue, hopefully alongside a fresh strike ballot, the leadership of BASSA (Unite’s BA cabin crew branch) should use their fighting authority to call a cross-union meeting and begin to practically discuss how action can be coordinated throughout the BA unions. We feel that coordinating action, including strike action, is the best way to bring a resolution to the cabin crew dispute and protect other sections of the BA workforce from further attack.