BA dispute: court drama, strike action and old-fashioned victimisation

BA dispute: court drama, strike action and old-fashioned victimisation

British Airways cabin crew have taken further industrial action in a dramatic battle with management that has become 2010's most significant dispute so far.

12,000 members of British Airways cabin crew have been taking part in their first round of strike action, running for five days beginning on Monday. Another two rounds are planned for the coming weeks. The dispute is primarily over the revoking of travel rights from workers involved in previous strike action by BA management.

The strikes follow a high court injunction which banned the action (and retrospectively outlawed two previous strikes conducted on the same ballot) and an appeal which overturned the decision, allowing strike action to go ahead. BA are currently threatening further legal action, with speculation that they plan to take the dispute to the Supreme Court.

Injunctions and appeals

The High Court's Initial decision to ban the strike had enormous ramifications, and had it been upheld it would have meant that the 'right to strike' had basically ceased to exist in Britain. The fact that members hadn't been informed in individual letters of 11 spoilt ballots out of 12,000 (as opposed to via emails, texts and so on) in a ballot with a turnout of over 70% with a mandate of 81%, showed that hugely disproportionate sanctions faced minor and – as the appeal proved – arguable 'breaches' of some of the most complex employment legislation in existence. It also raised the prospect of workers being fired, entirely legally, for taking strike action ruled unlawful after the event. Practically, this would put the 'right to strike' in Britain on the same terms that existed before the Taff Vale judgement of 1901 and the Trades Disputes Act 1906, which granted unions immunity from litigation for officially conducted ballots. It also means that strike ballots have to be more rigorous than the general elections which create governments, and if the same standards were applied practically every MP would lose their seats.

In the wake of the appeal, we can speculate on the rationale for overturning the ban in a legal climate in which any excuse to injunct against strikes with huge democratic mandates had been granted – of over 30 injunctions sought against strike action recently, all but two have been upheld, including this one. With the hearing taking place at such a high level, it appears that the High Court wanted to demonstrate that rulings should take into account the legal principle of 'de minimis' – that is that breaches of the law shouldn't be met with disproportionate consequences. But this begs the question - why is this only an issue now, after a number of high court injunctions have banned strikes?

Perhaps part of the issue is simply judicial self-interest. In delivering the ruling, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, stated that disputes can't be resolved through the courts. Given the inevitability of strike action in the face of savage budget cuts and broad attacks of the quality of living in the UK, the high court may simply wish to avoid having its schedule filled with these kinds of cases in coming years.

Another, more plausible possibility may be a reflection of the concerns voiced in the employers' press about the strict enforcement of the complex legislation covering work and business. Concerns have been raised about the consequences if the same approach was applied to the rules governing shareholders meetings for instance – though this is of course highly unlikely, as the spate of these rulings and the structure of the law itself make it clear that the law is there to make strike action by workers as ineffective and difficult as possible, not that there is any real concern for the watertight application of legislation per se.

The most important reason, however, has to do with the functioning of unions. Unions and lawful strike action are allowed to exist within capitalism for a reason: they function as a pressure valve for the inevitable conflicts between workers and employers. This understanding was repeated in the mainstream media, though the argument was from the perspective that outlawing strikes and neutering unions further would lead to the prospect of 'unrest' beyond anyone's control. These judges are of the generation that will remember the strikes of the 1970s and the fact that unions are often useful to stop wildcat action and call off strikes. More recently, the Royal Mail strikes last year saw a number of local disputes, including illegal and unofficial strike action, being rolled up into a limited national strike which culminated in a union 'deal' which represented a pay cut and a worsening of terms and conditions for workers.

Busting BASSA

With the court battles taking up the limelight, details have surfaced of BA's long-running attempts to get rid of militant members of the cabin crew union affiliated to Unite, BASSA, which has regularly been attacked by BA boss Willie Walsh as “dysfunctional” for its willingness to push for effective action.

Following the last significant dispute between BASSA and BA management over pay in January 2007, BA set its sights on finding excuses to fire leading BASSA shop stewards. Managers contacted the crew scheduling team requesting details of the rosters of 18 workers – all prominent BASSA members – and looked for evidence of conspiracy with crew schedulers to give them preferential rosters. The allegations were groundless, and internal investigations came up with no evidence of anything of the sort.

The pressure has been hugely intensified as a result of the present dispute. Publicly, BA has claimed that the relationship between BASSA and Unite is “dysfunctional” - which may well be a reflection of tensions between Unite and BASSA officials, who are much closer to the workplace: given that they are all workers themselves they are directly affected by BA's plans, unlike Unite bureaucrats whose position, pay and perks are much closer to those of Willie Walsh than any BA cabin crew. The plan for 20 days of strike action in 5-day tranches originated with BASSA, and the branch has strongly rejected management's offers – a combative attitude clearly reflected in the overwhelming mandates for strike action repeatedly returned by workers.

BA's bullying has only compounded this willingness to fight – the current strikes are over these attacks on workers, specifically the fact that BA revoked travel 'perks' from workers taking strike action. It has been reported that around a quarter of cabin crew live abroad, making these 'perks' basically essential to do the job. BASSA's officials are all BA workers, and the majority of them are currently facing disciplinary charges on spurious grounds. BA sacked Duncan Holley, a BASSA branch secretary on the 7th of May. He was the fifth official to be sacked during the dispute. Over 50 workers currently face disciplinaries relating to the strikes, the vindictiveness of which was reported following the previous walkouts. Disciplinary charges followed activities such as:

• Receiving and forwarding e-mails from their private accounts
• Discussions on union member only forums
• Holding private conversations
• Making a joke
• Expressing dismay regarding a graffiti board set up by BA management where staff were encouraged to scribble words of support for the company, on which was written "cabin crew scum."

During the last dispute a BASSA rep was served with a 45-page legal document demanding the identities of 32 crew members posting under pseudonyms on the union's internal messageboard. It is unsurprising that in these circumstances workers have dug in and pushed for further strike action.

Where next?

The dispute doesn't show any immediate signs of ending. However, despite BA management's bullish claims that the strikes have “failed” and will continue to fail, they are clearly hurting the airline. After all, if they were useless, why would the company spend so much money on lawyers to find technicalities to take to the High Court? According to some studies, the ongoing dispute could cost the airline up to £1.4 Billion. After BA posted record losses of £531 Million, the worst since the company was privatised in 1987, the ongoing battle poses a serious risk to the position of Chief Executive Willy Walsh. Despite BA's merger with Iberian airlines, the dispute is casting a shadow over the airlines' future. Whether this is a real risk is another question, as given the company's status as national flagcarrier, it may not be allowed to fail. However, management has been forced to retreat on a number of issues since the start of the dispute, and victory is a possibility. The workers deserve our full support and solidarity in this dispute.

Posted By

Django
May 26 2010 20:21

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