Aviation: Two struggles in Britain and Belgium

Accounts and analysis of two days spent with striking aviation workers in London and Brussels, Autumn 2004.

Belgium Beer, Bangers and Baggage Jammers
Here are two shorter reports about struggles in the aviation sector. We visited a picket line of striking baggage handlers at Gatwick Airport in London and a demonstration of DHL-workers in Bruxelles. We think that the aviation sector in general has got some interesting political characteristics and potentials for future struggles. Just to mention some of them:

1. The aviation sector was one of the main booming sectors in the 90s, partly due to changes in the production and consumtion structure. The extension and globalisation of production chains increased the importance of air transport within the productive cycle. Eg material transport within the automotive sector. As a private means of transport flying also became socially widespread in the 90s. In terms of employment the numbers of people employed in the aviation sector in the EU has increased by 20 per cent from 1995 to 1999.

2. Airports are a highly condensed concentration of workers and have a major impact on the regional labourmarket.In airports tens of thousands of people work together or next to each other on a rather small geographical scale, e.g. the airport in Heathrow, London employs about 70,000 people. Where airports are built the whole regional labourmarket and economic structure changes: Capital and workforce are needed for the construction (runways, buildings, access roads) and for the service around the airport (hotels, transport, catering). Job centres open special departments for the new demand, the airport attracts new companies which use the new gateway to the world, the houseprices in the area rise, the region rises in the hierarchy of capitalist investment.

3. The airport workforce covers nearly the whole range of social class composition on a global scale. Within the boundaries of airports you can find all sorts of different work situations: highly paid specialist work and McJobs, office work and manual labour, personal services and technical maintenance. A lot of immigrants work at airports, some doing low paid manual work, and some because of their language skills. The structure and work organisation is similar wherever you are in the world. Hundreds of cabin crew workers fly around the globe in and out of various airports everyday.

4. Struggles in the sector tend to have immediate international re-percussions and often refer to each other. In the late 90s we could see various strikes of airline workers which reffered to each other and their demands and gains. Depending on the function within the airport complex (e.g. flight controlers, technical staff), struggles have an immediate international impact. In general we could see more struggles in comparison to other sectors, some of them went beyond legal restrictions, e.g. the wildcat strike at AlItalia or Air Olympic.

5. The crisis attack on the workers is much closer intertwined with general global developments than in any other sector: war, terror, oil price. The main attacks on the workforce happened short after the Asian crisis in 1997/98 and after September the 11th 2001, with about 45,000 redundancies in the EU aviation sector since then. Crisis measures in the sector are officially explained by global situations: wars, oil price development, the terrorist threat. State intervention against the workers are also justified in that way: tanks and soldiers at the airport, severe checks and selection processes for newly hired workers, anti-strike laws within the frame-work of the US-Patriot Act...

6. There are several political movements which attack airports in their function as check points within the migration control and because of their environmental impacts. There are several political struggles targeting airports, e.g. initiatives against the construction of new runways, anti-deportation and anti-detention centre campaigns, actions against the military use of the air transport. In some cases these initiatives were able to create links with the workers within the aviation sector, e.g. pilots and cabin crews refusing to serve on deportation flights.

The following two examples of recent conflicts are in some ways examples of the defensive position that workers find themselves in at the moment. The baggage handlers in London didn’t break out of their professional boundaries and the union control, probably also due to the experiences of the last wildcat-strike in 2002, when the struggle was suffocated under the media’s anti-strike propaganda and the threat of major legal consequences. The DHL-workers in Bruxelles didn’t occupy the runways, they demonstrated in town centre instead, a decision which may also be due to the experience of the Sabena (bancrupt Belgian Airline) workers only three years ago, who were tear-gased by the cops while trying to get to the runways.