International fightback, not 'race to the bottom'

Elementary workplace struggles demand to be generalised, writes James Turley

The British Airways dispute is the most recent of a whole series of strikes in which workers have been forced to resist attacks on their wages, conditions and indeed their jobs. The three-day walkout by BA cabin crew over March 20-22 took place despite the agreement of the Unite leadership to a whole raft of ‘savings’, including pay cuts and staff reductions.

However, even this was not enough for BA boss Willie Walsh. Following the airline’s success in winning a court injunction to stop the original cabin crew strike on a technicality in December, Unite general secretary Derek Simpson organised a fresh ballot and for a second time won an overwhelming majority for action, while simultaneously negotiating with BA management on the extent of the damage to be inflicted on his members, including worse conditions for new employees. It is notable that placards held up by Unite members on the picket line have pointed to BA’s intransigence in refusing to agree a deal despite the union’s willingness to accept lower wages. Four further days of strike action are planned for March 27-30.

In a sense the BA dispute can be attributed to the effects of the recent recession. Faced with potentially huge losses caused by a drop in flight sales, the company’s response was to tear up its cabin crew contracts and demand a fresh start. How else can the company stay afloat in the face of such cut-throat competition? Unfortunately the reaction of the union leadership has been to accept this premise and attempt to negotiate ‘kinder’ cuts.

As with the dispute between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union last autumn, the press hysteria concentrated on the inevitable disruption that would result from the strike, especially if it had gone ahead over Christmas, as originally planned. The Christmas period is a big one, for posties and cabin crew alike.

The March 20-22 walkout was pretty solid. Unite claimed that only 300 out of 2,200 cabin crew crossed the picket lines and BA had to admit that between a third and half of flights were cancelled in spite of its huge scabbing operation. Some planes were said to have departed without passengers’ baggage - or even without passengers! Walsh is undoubtedly putting a brave face on it.

But he has numerous allies in the shape of bourgeois politicians and commentators, all of them urging the union to ‘see sense’ and sign away their members’ ‘privileges’ in order to rescue BA from the mess it has been dumped in by the capitalist economic crisis. The Labour government was to the fore, through transport secretary Andrew Adonis, who damned the strike as soon as it was announced. Gordon Brown at first condemned it as “unjustified” and “deplorable”, although later he was a little more mealy-mouthed. He called for a negotiated settlement, which is a nice way of distancing himself from the underlying factors behind the struggle.

David Cameron has been in fine Thatcherite form, meanwhile, congratulating scabs and urging Gordon Brown to do the same. He, along with an entire section of the rightwing media, claims that Labour is in hock to the unions - Unite’s enormous funding of the party has been supplemented by £4 million donated to its election fund. However, it appears that Brown’s initial statement has led to thousands of Unite members stopping that part of their dues which goes to the union’s political fund.

Reactions from the rightwing press are typically hysterical. The latest Daily Mail scandal piece is a particular treat for Weekly Worker readers - the apoplectic gutter rag has discovered that “militants behind the British Airways strike have a secret agenda to take control of the Labour Party” (March 23). It has discovered that Unite exec member Graham Stevenson is also a leading member of the Morning Star’s dozy Communist Party of Britain, and - worse - has perfidious plans to reclaim the Labour Party through the union fund, “dumping Blairite policies in favour of old-style socialism”. This is a bit of investigative journalism that must have taken all of 30 seconds on Google - nonetheless, it ties into the overarching Tory narrative that Labour is at the beck and call of the unions.

The other tune ringing out from these quarters is a little more substantial - BA is a ‘dinosaur operation’, running uncompetitive business practices (not least supposedly ‘lavish’ conditions for its staff) and being punished in the marketplace for the resultant high ticket prices. This is, after all, the age of Ryanair - of 50 quid weekend breaks, no-frills flights where drinks and food must be paid for. The older airlines are caught between fighting over the luxury end of the market - ‘business class’ and so on - and trying to maintain a mass customer base at the same time.

There is, of course, a truth in the claims about BA’s lack of competitiveness. There are many more robust businesses in the airline industry, and part of their strength lies in their refusal to pay their workers comparable rates to that company. That is why Socialist Worker is, at the end of the day, buying into the anti-worker consensus when it denies the undeniable. It asks in a headline, “Is British Airways really broke?” And the article answers: “While it may not be making as much as it has in the past, it’s a very long way from poor” (March 27). It refers to BA’s past profits and to the millions spent on strike-breaking to ‘prove’ that the company - like all its rivals - is not finding it tough to compete. The dispute is, however, limited to BA, which is why it can so easily be painted as a strike to defend privileges rather than rights. In this situation, Willie Walsh is probably right - maintaining better wage rates and conditions will in the end drive BA to the wall.

This is not because workers at BA are privileged in reality - far from it. It is that workers at other airlines, especially budget airlines, are exploited even more egregiously. It also means that successful defence of conditions necessitates broadening the struggle to other companies, and involving their workers in a counteroffensive across the whole sector. If every airline is facing pressure from below on wages and conditions, then they will all simply have to find another way to compete than dumping on the people at the bottom of the pile.

But that is not the end of it. BA, after all, has been able to pay these ‘excessive’ wages for decades. It is only now, with a global financial crisis, that slightly doddery businesses are facing serious threats to their existence. The banking casualties have been most prominent, but in Britain we have also seen the likes of the redundant Woolworths chain go bust. In boom times, there is more than enough business to go round. Right now, belts are tightening everywhere and holiday plans (upon which the airlines to a large extent depend) are being revised downwards. We all suffer in one way or another - employed and unemployed, public sector and private sector.

We are talking here, however, about capitalist free-market economics, not the political economy of the working class, which puts need, not profit, first. What is transparently necessary is a class-wide, international fightback against all this. In the first place, we must insist that wages and conditions are evened up - the very opposite of the ‘race to the bottom’. That means international trade union organisation and action to raise the pay and better the conditions of those, including many of BA’s rivals, who are not ‘privileged’. Once more, Socialist Worker does not face up to what is necessary. Yes, it mentions pending strikes by Air France cabin crew and Portuguese pilots, but does not even hint at the need for a coordinated, international response.

But, of course, trade unions on their own are insufficient. The glue that holds the workers’ movement together is, in the last instance, political. And this points to another big failing of the economistic left, with its constant (and largely uncritical) promotion of the trade union politics of the British working class.

So the Daily Mail need not worry itself about Graham Stevenson and the like. The “hard-left faction” (oh, please) he apparently represents has never had political ambitions beyond those of the trade union bureaucracy at large - the likes of the CPB are a thoroughly coopted opposition. In fact, the initiative flows in the other direction: the systematised bribery characteristic of capitalist politics extends outwards to the labour bureaucracy, remaking it in its own, bourgeois image. Not for nothing is Brownite spin-doctor Charlie Whelan now Unite’s political director. The Labour Party we have is the Labour Party the unions want.

What the unions, and their left bag carriers, lack is any kind of strategy. A strategy, after all, would necessitate some kind of aim. A general comes up with a strategy in order to win the war. A strategy for prolonging a war endlessly, while trying to win each individual battle, is no strategy at all. To win this war, however, means waging a political battle against the very logic of capitalism, which will always want its pound of flesh.

That is something that the labour bureaucracy cannot countenance - its vision of ‘socialism’, where it has one at all, is a variation on the present condition of society with a few more crumbs for the workers and a few more chunks of industry operating under the patronage of the British state.

Yet the most elementary workplace struggles themselves demand to be generalised. It is obvious that isolated, sectional victories - when they can be achieved in the current climate - are more vulnerable than the fruits of more broadly united action. At the best of times the political culture of the labour bureaucracy, and its attendant sectionalism, acts as a brake on the progress of the working class. In times such as these, it is rather an obstacle.