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BA cabin crew can win
British Airways cabin crew on the picket line, photo Paul Mattsson
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.
In The Socialist 24 March 2010:
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Marxist analysis: history
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news