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.

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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

Cabin Crew march on Waterside

This is a video of a march organised by cabin crew on the final day of the latest round of strike action on Wednesday 9th June. The march went from Unite offices off the Bath Road to Waterside, BA corporate HQ.

(For more excellent video’s of the cabin crew dispute check out iceage 500 at You Tube)

Air Strike bulletin No. 9

This bulletin was handed out on the picket lines for the final bloc of 5 day strikes from Saturday 5th June to Wednesday 9th June.

View this document on Scribd

Cabin Crew lobby Parliament

Here is a brief video of the recent lobby by BA cabin crew of Parliament on Tuesday 8th June. This is taken from Unite’s You Tube channel Unite The Union.

Air Strike bulletin No. 8

This bulletin was handed out during the second bloc of 5 day strike action.

View this document on Scribd

Interview with Penny White

The following interview took place between Edmund Schluessel, a member of the Socialist Party and an activist in the University and Colleges Union (UCU) and Penny White.

As the first week of the British Airways cabin crew strike drew to a
close, I spoke to Penny White, a retired cabin crew member who now works for Bassa, the union within Unite representing the cabin crew. Ms White joined me by telephone for a fruitful conversation about the strike
situation and the conditions that BA’s workers face, under constant
attack from both management and the media.

The mood is good on the picket lines. “There are masses and masses of people there. We are still having people calling in saying they’re going on
strike for the first time” — as BA crew are distributed all over the
world, many who have been working in far corners of the earth are
joining the strike as soon as they return to British soil. “There are
more joiners every day. People are losing hundreds of pounds I’m afraid,
but people are determined they’re not going to let their colleagues down.”

We’ve heard some things already about Willie Walsh’s bullying tactics in
dealing with the BA cabin crew, so I asked if the same culture had
spread throughout BA. “To be honest, it seems everyone’s afraid of Walsh
now.” Even management feel Walsh is going too far: “we’ve had two lots
of food delivered to the picket lines saying ‘not everyone’s on Willie’s
side’.” Scabbing, though, is becoming a serious problem, with staff from
other sections of British Airways — pilots and engineers, for example
— impressed into substituting for trained cabin crew. “Volunteer crew
are being told, ‘if you don’t volunteer, you’ll be the first one out the
door’. There’s a climate of fear within Waterside”, the international
head office of BA. “You do what you’re told. They don’t dare protest.
Willie Walsh has got rid of all the people who are high up enough who
would have gone against him and he’s just carrying on regardless.” White
spoke of abuses toward staff in already difficult situations: an
employee working in Abuja, Nigeria became seriously ill. “Her husband
phoned BA twice to say she was ill. All the days she’s been away have
been X’ed out as if she were on strike. Her pay has been deducted and
she will get the letter saying her staff travel’s been taken away.
Everyone who’s been off sick has been told they’re staff travel’s been
taken away. A few people have managed to get it back but it’s people
with things like diabetes, illnesses that were on record.” The
motivation for the dragooning tactics is that the strike is “not going
the way the management though it was going to go”; BA had assumed they
would be able to carry on normal operations but compliance with the
strike has been too great.

Walsh broke off discussions with BA over Derek Simpson’s twittering, and
a similar pettiness faces the BA employees who go against the
management. “A group of pilots volunteered to work as cabin crew. A list
of names of these pilots was posted on Facebook. One person said, ‘is
that really [a pilot’s name]? Another person replied merely with the
letters ‘OMG’.” All people involved in the Facebook conversation have
been suspended and the person who posted the list of pilots’ names has
been sacked, even though the list of names was never made available to
the general public, only to BA employees.

Solidarity, both within BA and across the whole working class, is of
critical importance. “We’re all fighting for survival, fighting for a
job we’ve had for years and years and years. When I was a kid the miners
kept putting the lights off and I kept missing all my favorite
television programmes, but I kept putting the money in. I was supposed
to be on holiday this week and next week, but sometimes you have to say
‘this is more important’. I think people deserve a certain standard of
living.”

In addition to the lack of immediate solidarity, scabbing has further,
immediately dangerous repercussions: the breakdown of trust between
cabin crew and scabbing employees is endangering passengers’ lives.
Penny discusses the idea of “Crew Resource Management”: “One of the most
important things in flying is that the crew works together as a team.
Basically, it’s been proved that what makes everything work in an
emergency is if the crew is working as a team. What’s happening now is
that the flight crew are not talking to the cabin crew and vice versa.
They [scabs] are destroying one of the most important concepts in flight
safety.” As an example, she gives: “sometimes you smell strange things
in the cabin, sometimes it’s just fuel fumes blowing back into the
cabin. But sometimes those fumes can tell you something much worse —
oil on fire. If you’re afraid of the captain, you’re not going to tell
him, are you? And so the flight will continue until things get really
bad.” Poor communication, Penny says, caused the 1977 Tenerife airplane
tragedy, which killed 583 people.

Willie Walsh allows the strike to continue, though, backed up by the
anti-trade union laws. “Certainly, we’re not as free in Britain as you
are, say, in France. Other countries have much freer laws than we do.
We’re constantly monitored by the police.” The BA cabin crew “offered
£62.97 million [in cuts]. Willie Walsh said it was £10 million short.
Using his [Walsh’s] own estimate that strike action costs BA £7 million
each day, we’re already up to £84 million. This isn’t about money, this
is about breaking this union. That’s what he set to do, this is his
intention. BA isn’t about to fall out of the sky.”

“His initial idea was to go back to court. It’s only now that he hasn’t
been able to do that that he has approached Tony Woodley and asked for
further dialogue. He certainly didn’t want to settle; his idea was to
get the strike declared illegal. He certainly wasn’t interested in
negotiating.”

Unite’s negotiators are still trying to get the best deal they can for
the strikers. “The deal that we’ve offered them gives them New Fleet,
which is the thing they were after. We have accepted change, we’ve
offered as much as we can to try and help BA in its supposed time of
falling revenue. It’s all been turned down so he can spend £84 million
(to date) on breaking the union.”

White commented on the SWP’s Saturday intervention into the BA-Unite
talks, which saw 100 SWP members — but no representatives of the cabin
crew — invading and attempting to occupy the ACAS building where
negotiations were taking place. “That really didn’t help anybody. I know
you should say their hearts are in the right place. We’re all socialists
in lots of ways, but each group has got to do their own negotiating and
it doesn’t help, a bunch of people barging in. It’s all right to join
the picketing. It probably did more damage to our cause. It certainly
didnt’ do anything positive.

What, then, can ordinary people and activists do to show support for the
BA strikers? “Everybody is welcome to join in at the picket line. People
are sending in donations. It’s  costing a lot of money for the crew to
keep going,. I take my hat off to the ones who have organised the picket
line. There’s a never-ending supply of pickets.” Donations can be sent
to: Unite House, 99 New Road, Harlington, Middlesex UB3 5BQ.

Penny expresses her hopes that the real story of the strikers gets into
the press. “The problem with the [mainstream] press is that they twist
the things we say.” The Daily Mail, for example, has blatantly
misrepresented the cabin crews’ pay, claiming they make £30,000 a year.
She explains the pay situation: “there are two groups within BA. One lot
are on old contracts, which stem from the days when BA was owned by the
government. Over the years, just because of the deals BA has done with
the staff, they are well paid by anyone’s standards — these are people
who are in charge of the big aircraft and they will have done 25-30
years with the company. 70% are on ‘new contracts’. The young ones are
on around £20,000 a year. We all have fairly low basic salaries and most
of our money is made up from our allowances from flying; if you don’t fly
then you really are stuck. If you don’t fly then you really don’t make
ends meet. People get a decent salary, they certainly get more than the
people at EasyJet and Ryanair for definite; it’s a career. The people
who are saying they’re overpaid are the people working for Sky News.
It’s just the fact that if you are at supposedly the top of a type of
job then you’re probably going to get paid more. Most of the people who
work for BA have come from other airlines. They start off at Ryanair or
EasyJet. It seems the mainstream press thinks everyone should earn the
lowest possible salaries.”

Penny closes with a summary of where the union stands now. “I think we
have done our best to try to give our offer to BA. BA had a deal. There
is no need for any of this but Walsh is interested not in the deal so
much as the demise of the union. If the union is gone, then he will be
able to do as he sees fit and who knows what that will entail down the
line. He destroyed Aer Lingus, he’s destroying British Airways now.

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