Britain: Support grows for cabin crew

Strikers can beat BA bosses

"We’ve been forced into going on strike because the terms and conditions have changed on board the aircraft. It’s not so much about pay. In fact we’ve offered a pay cut but Mr Walsh [BA boss] is obviously trying to break the union" said one BA striker.

From 27 to 30 March, British Airways cabin crew are due to have a second round of strike action. The first round came to an end on 22 March – the most important of the three days of strike action.

The action over the weekend mostly affected leisure travellers but Monday’s strike hit business travellers, a lucrative market for BA. One of the world’s largest airlines was largely put out of action at the beginning of a working week. BA bosses tried to claim that the strike was having no effect but they then announced £21 million losses!

The crowds outside the strike HQ grew over the three strike days with strikers queuing up to go on picket duties despite the early morning cold weather. Streams of vehicles passing pickets honked their horns in support.

Cabin crew have every right to feel confident. The rows of idle planes on the tarmac keep getting longer. Crew buses supposedly ferrying 50% of cabin crew to work were largely empty. BA bus drivers are directly employed by BA and are also members of Unite. They are some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the pickets.

One driver carrying a handful of scabs beeped her horn with gusto while passing a picket on a roundabout. By a stroke of luck the traffic lights turned red so the bus stopped close to the pickets for several moments. The driver considerately opened her window and gestured for the pickets to sing louder so her passengers inside would get the full benefit!

After months of relentless attacks by management, cabin crew feel they have finally started to shift the pressure on to management and Willie Walsh. The man himself disappeared during the strike, with no sightings of him around Waterside (management HQ) – apart from the occasional video broadcasted on YouTube where Walsh assured everyone that all was well and everything was going exactly according to plan.

This has led the strikers to dub him ’Comical Ali’, after Saddam Hussein’s former propaganda minister, eternally optimistic in the face of reality!

From discussions on the picket lines and statements from Unite it appears there has been no contact from management about restarting negotiations. The general consensus was that a second round of strike action is likely.

Cabin crew will be starting this round of strikes in a much stronger position. They have public support, they have the backing of much of the British and international trade union movement and industrial action has hit the company hard.

British Airways cabin crew on the picket line, photo Paul Mattsson

BA cabin crew can win

The strike action by British Airways cabin crew marks a further stage in private sector industrial struggle since the onset of the economic crisis. There have been sharp struggles such as the Visteon and Linamar disputes. The Lindsey oil refinery struggle led to unofficial action on a national scale.

Now, in the case of the cabin crew struggle, the largest private sector union branch in the country is in a full blown battle with the management of an iconic national company that is seeking to use every means it can to smash the union.

If cabin crew are victorious it will be a momentous victory for the trade union movement.

Fundamentally, lying behind the attempt to smash the union is the ’race to the bottom’ aimed at workers’ living standards. BA chief Willie Walsh sees unionised BA workers as a barrier to the attacks on terms and conditions that he wants to carry out. Like the miners in the past and the PCS and RMT unions today, cabin crew are portrayed as ’strike happy’ for defending their union and terms and conditions. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher saw the strength of the National Union of Mineworkers as a block on her neoliberal counterrevolution.

It is a measure of the sickness of modern capitalism that workers on reasonable, but certainly not extravagant pay are now seen as ’privileged’ by bosses and their shadows in the right wing media. All the hard won gains of the past are being eyed up by bosses desperate to boost diminished profits and line their own nests. One picketer aptly described the hypocrisy when she said: "Interestingly Walsh doesn’t say ’Well who is the lowest paid chief executive? I think my wages should be equal to that!’"

This is instinctively understood by a broad range of workers across the country and is reflected in the tremendous public support shown to the cabin crew pickets at Heathrow. Also the backing of international transport trade unions was a significant morale boost to cabin crew at the start of the dispute. Thanks to Tory anti-trade union laws – upheld by New Labour – it has been easier for cabin crew to organise solidarity from workers in Sydney than from fellow workers in their own workplace!

The Tories and right-wing press have attempted to portray the involvement of Brown’s former side-kick Charlie Whelan, now political officer in Unite, as the building of some kind of ’Militant Tendency’ within the Labour Party. This refers to the period when the Socialist Party’s forerunner, Militant, had a strong influence amongst Labour’s ranks and there was a struggle to push the party to adopt a socialist programme in the interests of the working class.

Big business party

But although the Labour Party was formed by trade unionists to stand in working class interests, today it is an outright party of big business. Gordon Brown and senior Labour ministers lined up to join the Tories and the Daily Mail in attacking the strike action. New Labour have answered the simple trade union related question ’Which side are you on?’ time and again, by siding with the bosses.

Many cabin crew picketers say they have ceased paying into the Labour affiliation fund. The national union leaders should follow their example and stop throwing good money after bad through their funding of the Labour Party. The millions of pounds handed over to Labour by the Unite leadership have not bought actions in the interest of Unite members.

The leadership of the Unite cabin crew branches, particularly BASSA (British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association, the Unite branch for BA cabin crew) have done a good job in this dispute so far. They have managed to bring the vast majority of their members with them through months of difficult circumstances.

Much of this is down to doing the basics of trade unionism well, such as frequent consultations with the membership (there have been four mass meetings of over 1,500 members since November), regular, well produced public material to counteract the propaganda put out by management and rotating picket lines which allows as much of the membership as possible to play a part in the dispute despite the restrictions of the anti trade union laws.

The concrete result of this solid ground work could be seen during the strike in the rows and rows of empty BA planes sitting idle on the tarmac. Disruption has continued during the days following the strike as further flights have had to be cancelled due to the knock on effects. Confidence is rightly high among the crew.

Walsh’s naked desire to smash the union has left him with very little room for manoeuvre. This may prompt him to dig in for a fight to the finish. It is therefore incumbent on the trade union movement to end this dispute as quickly as possible in favour of the cabin crew.

On the first day of the strike action, Saturday 20 March, many trade unionists from across the country answered Unite’s call to come to a rally in support of the strikers. This boosted the confidence of cabin crew on that crucial first day. Unfortunately lack of time and poor transport meant that not everyone who wanted to was able to attend. If BA continues to be intransigent then a large national demonstration, with transport laid on by Unite and the TUC should descend on Heathrow in support of the cabin crew. This could act to further isolate Walsh and perhaps deepen rumoured splits in the BA board.

There is also the issue of bringing other workers at BA into the dispute. Other workers, such as check-in staff at Terminal 5 have grievances with management. Unite should consider fast-tracking these other disputes so that other sections of the BA workforce can take industrial action alongside cabin crew if it becomes necessary.


Unite negotiator Tony Woodley at one stage offered to suspend the strike action if management’s ’final offer’ was put back on the table (after being withdrawn). This was a very poor offer, but if more concessions are put forward, including, for example, the immediate lifting of the suspension of 36 cabin crew (some of them simply for putting their views on Facebook), then the cabin crew would want those negotiations pursued.

However, in the absence of significant concessions from BA management, the currently planned programme of strike action shouldn’t be suspended simply to get back to the negotiating table; the crew need to keep the whip hand of a live strike during negotiations. After all, the management has subjected cabin crew to months of unrelenting pressure and harassment; now the tables have turned on Walsh and the board, this should not be squandered, but stepped up to win a victory for the crews’ reasonable demands.

Message of support from Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins:

I am writing ahead of your scheduled strike to express my solidarity, as well as the solidarity of my party the Socialist Party and our sister party the Socialist Party of England and Wales, for your campaign to defend your pay and conditions in British Airways.

British Airways CEO, Willie Walsh, has a reputation from his time in Aer Lingus of savaging the pay and conditions of workers. He wants to repeat the same again in BA.

If management are successful in doing this they will be one step closer to turning BA into a Ryanair style operation with rock bottom pay and conditions for its workers.

It is important for all workers in aviation that a stand is taken. The strike is a beacon to workers in the aviation industry who are opposed to the ’race to the bottom’ in pay and conditions for workers in the industry.

In my own constituency of Dublin, Aer Lingus management are planning to sack 80% of cabin crew and rehire them on inferior terms and conditions.

After the relentless cuts of the Walsh era this latest assault underlines the correctness of your decision to fight BA’s impositions.

I applaud Unite’s call for international solidarity action to black BA flights during your strike. International solidarity such as this will be a key factor in winning this battle.

I also would like to condemn the campaign in the media and amongst the political establishment against you over the last number of weeks and days.

If I or the Socialist Party can be of any practical or political assistance during your struggle please don’t hesitate to get in contact.

In solidarity,

Joe Higgins

Socialist Party MEP


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March 2010