BA strike: on a wing and a prayer?

An analysis of the 12-day Xmas strike at British Airways called by the Unite union. By Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire.

Submitted by Django on December 16, 2009

It seems like the ultimate kamikaze action: mutually assured destruction. The company you work for is already in a huge amount of trouble, posting a £401m loss last year, a lot more this year, running a massive pension deficit and you decide to press the nuclear button by going on strike for 12 days at the busiest time of the year.

If you wanted to engineer the bankruptcy of your employer, put yourself on the dole early in the New Year and without much in the way of a redundancy deal, this seems to be the perfect way to do it. In a monopoly service this would not necessarily matter but we know passengers will choose another airline in order to get to their destination. And they won’t always come back either.

So the decision by 92% of those who voted “yes” for strike action on an 80% turnout is completely crazy, right?

Not exactly. Strong though it is, let’s set aside the moral argument of the workers against cutting costs because arguments on their own do not win industrial disputes. Only might makes right a truly potent force.

So what is the strike decision based on?

As a BA worker, you’d have to make a calculation that this action won’t sink your employer and that your action could make it retreat and settle on terms favourable to you.

What’s the evidence for this calculation? There are two parts to this.

The first is that BA cannot – as a going concern and soon-to-be merged partner with Iberia – contemplate coming out the other side on January 3 2010 as a viable proposition with this much damage done to it.

The logic here is that it’s better to compromise in the short-term even if this does not address the long-term problems. At least that way, you’re able to try to sort out the long-term problems by still being in the game.

The second is that the central political and economic importance of our de facto national flag carrier means that any government of any political complexion would not let BA crash into self-induced oblivion.

This means Unite has calculated that a 12-day strike will create such a political hot potato that the government will be forced to intervene to sort out the mess. Indeed, the calculation may be that the mere calling of the action will have this effect.

So heads will be knocked together by an outside third party, Acas will be brought in and there will be a deal that everyone says they are pleased with. To boot, financial help may be doled out to give BA breathing space.

Yet is this all on a wing and a prayer?

We’ve had macho-management in the private sector before, making threats of “do or die”. Pretty much all of them buckled in one way or another under pressure, so this is fair gamble. The obvious one that did not was Rupert Murdoch at Wapping and that’s because he carefully engineered a dispute and, critically, set up an alternative production site.

BA does not have this capacity. Indeed, one of the things it is trying to do is set up a low-cost, non-union operation. But that does not yet exist.

In this situation, the major shareholders might tell BA’s chief executive, Willie Walsh, that it’s time to compromise.

So what about banking on the government to step in? The recent experience of the Communication Workers’ Union in the Royal Mail dispute does not bode well. It found it hard to get the government that solely owns Royal Mail to step in and back its position.

But the sight of mass passenger chaos and queues at the country’s main airports in the event of a strike might just be enough to get the kind of intervention Unite seeks. Any party seeking election next year might want to show how it can smoothly deal with tricky situations as an advert for its management skills.

It’s certainly a poker game of very, very high stakes. Unite has rolled the dice and played its hand. We wait to see whether BA will call its bluff and raise the stakes or whether it will fold and retire for the night.

Originally published at the Guardian's Comment is Free



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Submitted by Steven. on December 19, 2009

discussion of British Airways cabin crew strike in our forums here: