Defend the right to strike!
On the decision of one judge and at the behest of British Airways bosses, the workers of Britain and their trade unions have been told that the democratic right to strike has been cancelled.
This "disgraceful legal judgment" as the union Unite correctly called it, makes voting in any union ballot almost irrelevant if it does not suit the wishes of the bosses and their friends in the judiciary. Any strike can be declared ’illegal’.
Every commentator has admitted that the so-called ballot irregularities would not have made a blind bit of difference to the outcome of the strike ballot. Unless the whole trade union movement faces up to what is required then the unions face the danger of being put back in legal terms to the infamous Taff Vale judgment of 1906 which made unions liable for commercial damages following the effect of any strikes they organised.
This is a ’dictatorship of the bosses’ that must be fought against. If Unite does not defy the law on this occasion but instead simply organises a re-ballot then who can say that the bosses won’t find other ’irregularities’ in the new ballot? The BA bosses wanted this judgment not only to stop the strike action but also to determine that it won’t happen when it is most inconvenient to them, ie at Christmas time.
Unite should be prepared to defy the law by going ahead with the action, and by calling on all their members in BA to come out on strike for a least a day in a massive demo at Heathrow against the bosses’ law. If the courts then come for the union’s funds then the whole of the trade union movement should come to Unite’s aid in defence of democratic rights and the trade unions.
The bosses have, by this judgement, declared war on the whole trade union movement, so it is incumbent on the TUC to lead the struggle in defence of workers’ democratic rights and organise a national demonstration as soon as possible around the slogan of defending the right to strike. This show of strength could be the first step in preparing, if necessary, for a one day general strike of the entire trade union movement.
As a minimum reaction to this whole disgraceful process, Unite should immediately stop paying any more money to the Labour Party, as the Labour government continues to support the anti-union laws.
The court judgment came a day after bosses of the Scottish airline Flyglobespan threw 800 workers on the stones as their company collapsed. Seeing the court injunction obtained by BA, there will be massive anger from workers across Britain that their votes can count for nothing and the vote of one judge can overturn the votes of thousands of cabin crew.
The cabin crew strike was set to be the biggest battle that British Airways has faced in decades. The determination of the workers to oppose the plans of the bosses was indicated in the overwhelming vote for strike action – 92% – on an unprecedented turnout of over 80%.
The judge’s decision to outlaw the ballot despite this overwhelming vote, shows that the anti-union laws have nothing to do with democracy but, on the contrary, are proving once again that they are bosses’ laws designed to weigh heavily against workers’ interests.
Union ballots are hemmed in with more regulations than there are fences on the Grand National, which means that if you fall at any hurdle then you are out of the game. The ballot timetable requires weeks of preparation by the union involved, to ensure that the bosses are provided with the details of exactly who the union intends to ballot and where they work, and that the wording on the ballot paper is approved, including stating that the workers know they are putting themselves ’outside their contract of employment’ if they strike.
If this wasn’t enough then the boss can ask the courts to declare a ballot invalid if the job description of the workers being asked to ballot is not described accurately enough.
It is about time that the unions declare that they have had enough of these legal shenanigans, where highly paid lawyers, as in this case, can describe the union as "disgracefully ignoring the legal requirements of the ballot".
It is clear that even the most rigorous application of the ballot rules by a union will always be infringed, however slightly. This can be enough for the ballot to be declared illegal and the union to be forced to start the whole time consuming process once again.
The vote for action and announcement of a twelve day strike shook BA boss Willie Walsh and the rest of the management to their very roots. They thought they could intimidate the cabin crew into accepting their dictates of lower wages and increased workloads. But the workers have seen through his plans and are committed to defeating them. If Walsh and his fellow directors thought they could easily overcome the opposition of the cabin crew then they have had an almighty shock.
The venom of the bosses against their own workforce was described as a "war to the death" in the Independent. The Guardian described the bosses’ plans as "a classic race to the bottom" and the working conditions on the budget airlines which Walsh wants for his workers as "frankly poor".
The vote brought out the hatred of the managers towards their own workers. "We used to hose the cabin crew down with cash every time they complained" said a former BA senior manager. The level of mistrust in the management by the workers was indicated on a blog by one that said: "Trust BA management? I’d rather let Doctor Shipman look after my folks for the weekend".
The bosses tried to pretend that the cabin crew are no more than pawns in the hands of their trade union and they were intent on pushing the union out of the door in this battle. But they have been taken aback by the support of the workers for the union in defence of existing agreements.
The venom of much of the press has been turned on the workers, calling strikes in the modern era ’outdated’ and a ’waste of time’. The Guardian did however question whether strikes are a waste of time, by asking how much worse things would have been for strikers in the 1980s "or the BA staff now if they did not take (or threaten to take) industrial action?".
This BA strike, if it happens over Christmas or following a re-ballot, will be one of the most important strikes of the decade. The response of the bosses everywhere to the present recession has been universal: "Make the workers pay". In the private sector millions face an uncertain future whilst the bankers and the rest of the boss class continue to rake in their bonuses and inflated salaries. The bosses demand all this while they load the dice against any attempt at working people to fight back.
However, Derek Simpson, a Unite joint general secretary, said on television that the plan for twelve days of strike action was "over the top". Doesn’t he think that it is the BA bosses’ actions that are "over the top"? They are the ones, after all, who unilaterally imposed the changes on cabin crew staffing despite there being longstanding agreements to the contrary.
Simpson and all the union leaders’ time would be better spent in answering the lies of the press, explaining the reasons for the strike action and why the bosses should not be allowed to get away with their attacks. They should point out to frustrated passengers that unless the union agreements are defended than it is their safety and decency of service on the aircraft that is at stake.
Bassa and Amicus Cabin Crew, which represent most of the cabin crew within Unite, have made the decisions up to now. They have a new leadership which seems to have the trust of the membership and it is they who determined the twelve day strike plan. There should be no change to this without the strike committee and the membership agreeing it first.
Heathrow and Aberdeen airport baggage handlers and check-in staff may strike before Christmas and Gatwick airport porters plan to strike on Friday and Saturday this week. It is clear that workers all round the country, many of whom fear for their own futures, are watching what happens with the cabin crew and hope that they will win their struggle. The unions should get behind the cabin crew and not let them fight alone. The old saying ’an injury to one is an injury to all’ has never been more appropriate.
(First published on 17 December 2009)