With strikes at BA looming this weekend, management has furthered its attacks on the workforce, while the airline faces international solidarity with BA workers.
With an election on the horizon, both main parties are attempting to outdo each other by attacking the BA cabin crew looking to defend their terms and conditions. Gordon Brown, whose party's biggest donor is the Unite union, has called the strike “unjustified and deplorable”. The Tories, damaged by revelations over the embarrassing tax-dodging of their major donor, Lord Ashcroft, have claimed labour is hobbled by powerful unions, "the new militant tendency". Meanwhile, the media and business has clamoured for the government to stop the strike, which has a huge democratic mandate from Unite members.
BA management have upped the stakes by threatening to sack Unite shop stewards at the heart of the dispute. Seven members of Bassa (Unite's cabin crew branch) face disciplinary charges over their role, charges which BA has refused to drop in the course of negotiations. On top of this, bosses are targetting workers who are attempting to avoid disciplinary action for refusing to cross picket lines by calling in sick. Management has warned staff that anyone who takes time off sick on strike days will be considered to be on strike and will be disciplined and have their pay docked.
Meanwhile, BA management could face opposition on both sides of the Atlantic. Senior figures at Unite have been meeting with their counterparts in the US Teamsters union. Captain David Bourne of the Teamsters condemned the combativity and bad intentions of British Airways management at the weekend, and issued a statement promising that “should events cause the cabin attendants to be forced to strike, we will support them in any way possible in the U. S. cities that are served by British Airways.”
What this support would mean in concrete terms is unclear – and could range from demonstrations at airports serviced by BA to boycotts of scabbing BA flights by the ground crews represented by the Teamsters (though legal action from the airline is a possibility for workers taking legal action). Unite has also approached unions in Italy, France, Spain and Germany, and according to the media has received commitments of solidarity form them. Secondary action appears likely in Europe - in the form of boycotts or go-slows from ground staff, flight staff and air traffic controllers, depending on the laws in place in each country.
Though the strike is beginning to assume the status of a setpiece battle between macho management and workers looking to defend their terms and conditions, Unite should not go without criticism for its attempts to act like a junior management partner and impose a pay cut on its membership. It is true that management have acted in bad faith in negotiations – for instance last week Unite put an offer put on the table by BA to its members, only to have management snatch the deal back off the table again. Nonetheless Unite's own offer meant a 2% pay cut for many BA workers, in order to save jobs. Unsurprisingly, management and the rightwing media have pounced on this to split BA workers. BA management have described the offer as “morally wrong” for the pay cut involved, and have eagerly recruited scab “volunteers” to staff strike-breaking flights. The union has accepted managements terms of reference – that one way or another, front-line workers have to pay for the airline's losses. The dispute is the form these cuts take, and how much “consultation” the union gets. This is likely not what staff had in mind when they voted overwhelmingly for strike action.
Nonetheless, the anger, determination and militancy of BA cabin crew is clear. For the bravery they have shown in defending their working conditions in the face of an employer's onslaught, they deserve our full support and solidarity.