British Airways (BA) have announced that 1,700 jobs will go amongst cabin crew. 1,000 workers will take voluntary redundancy and a further 3,000 will move to part time work. This is due to take effect in November.
BA has informed staff that additional cabin crew will be employed on terms and conditions inferior to those who will lose their jobs. It is clear BA is attempting to push through a restructuring campaign, first through cabin crew and later to the rest of the company by reducing staff, increasing workload and driving down wages and conditions. Unite, the union which represents the bulk of cabin crew at BA, has called on management to withdraw the proposals and return to talks or "risk a serious, drawn-out confrontation".
BA has pleaded that it is in the middle of a financial crisis and that the airline industry is showing no sign of recovery. This March they claimed they had lost £401 million over the previous year. However sources within BA have informed The Socialist that BA is in fact sitting on a £1 billion cash reserve.
This is not counted as an asset by a simple accounting trick. BA claims this money must be reserved in case the company goes bust overnight and is thereby liable for some arbitrarily selected number of potential customers it would have to pay back.
But BA is angling to buy BMI, Japan Airlines and merge with Iberia to create the largest global airline operator. These are not the actions of a company one day from crisis and liquidation.
BA's main aim is to come out of the industry crisis as a super profitable global giant through mergers and attacking wages and conditions.
Historically BA workers have been one of the best organised workforces in the country. Union density is very high with a long tradition of militant struggle. This has meant BA workers have managed to hold on to many of the concessions workers wrung from employers and government in the period of 1945-1972.
The centrepiece of this is the 1948 agreement. Under this agreement there can be no compulsory redundancies. If a job is abolished, then a worker has the right to be transferred to another job on the same pay with the same pay progression as his or her original job.
What this means in practice is that a worker's pay, and therefore their pensions, can only go up. Workers at Ryanair or Easyjet can only dream of such conditions. Naturally BA management hate this agreement and view the union activists who defend it much the same way a snake views a mongoose.
Since BA was privatised in 1987 the over-riding mission of BA management has been to smash the 1948 agreement and bring the unions to heel.
Tearing up the agreement is one thing, enforcing it on the workforce quite another. Unfortunately BA management have used the crisis in the industry to force national union leaders into accepting fundamental change in the way BA conducts industrial relations.
Three unions are present at BA - Unite (divided into T&G and Amicus sections), Balpa (representing pilots) and GMB. For industrial relations purposes the workforce is divided into six National Sectional Panels or NSPs. These are loading/ramp, administration, cabin crew, engineering, pilots and management. Each union nominates reps, in proportion to their strength among the workforce in an NSP, to negotiate with management of their section.
BA would find it very difficult to face down sustained united action by all the unions together. Management's strategy therefore is to carry out isolated attacks on different sections of the workforce. They try to probe for weakness among one section and use whatever inferior terms are enforced as a tool to drive down conditions in the rest of the company. So the attack on cabin crew is a provocation in a wider war against the 1948 agreement.
Cabin crew should not be left to face this attack alone. The national officers of all the BA unions should issue a joint statement opposing any change to the 1948 agreement and pledging mutual support for any action taken to defend it. But BA workers should not simply rely on action by national union leaders. It will be their willingness to get organised and fight that will decide the future of the 1948 agreement.
There is an urgent need to set up a joint shop stewards committee of the most senior reps to co-ordinate united resistance to any attacks by management on the agreement.