No to the race to the bottom
Peter Manson looks at the prospects for the BA strike
It is now abundantly clear that British Airways, in its drive to cut costs, is absolutely determined not only to smash its unionised workforce, but actually to replace key sections of them. It is this that lies behind the refusal of BA chief executive Willie Walsh to accept a deal which gives him virtually all the ‘savings’ he had demanded from the outset.
A video produced by Unite, which can be viewed on the ‘Brutish Airways’ website set up to support its British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association section, features a BA manager (played by an actor) lecturing a Bassa stewardess: “We have a line of people waiting to do your jobs - and for less money”. This may be part of a propaganda video, but the union knows it to be true - which is why it has persuaded its cabin crew that they have no alternative but to agree to cuts in their wages and conditions.
In fact the union has trumpeted its preparedness to accept less pay. One of its posters, held up by Bassa pickets, proudly states: “We offered pay cuts” - Unite has actually agreed to them, but Walsh wants something else altogether. He knows his cost-cutting can only really have the desired effect with a different workforce. Stewards and stewardesses cannot be expected to smile at passengers and work contentedly for their employer when inside they are seething. The only long-term option Walsh has is to force out the majority, or at least important elements, of his current cabin crew and employ a largely new workforce.
That is why he has made such a big thing about what the press calls “travel perks” - highly discounted flights for cabin crew, where seats are allocated on the basis of seniority. It is not as though this costs BA money - the idea was that staff should be encouraged to take up vacant seats. Walsh knows that, taking advantage of these longstanding arrangements, more than 10% of stewarding staff actually live outside the UK. And this minority - which now depends on the “perk” simply to get to work - will tend to be the most set in its ways and the most reluctant to adapt to the new regime Walsh intends to impose.
Unite’s advertising campaign, using selected national newspapers, has a stewardess saying: “I know airlines are in difficulties. That is why my union, Unite, has agreed to tens of millions of pounds worth of savings to help our company through hard times.” But BA has responded by suspending or sacking more than 50 Bassa members, “some with over 30 years of loyal service”. The advert notes that travel arrangements have been scrapped. “And we are not allowed to speak to you about any of this on pain of dismissal.”
It concludes by appealing to the reader’s sense of patriotism: “British Airways represents a great British tradition. But there is another great British tradition which the company doesn’t get - standing up to bullies.”
However, such Unite propaganda is submerged in a torrent of misinformation carried in most of the press. The only way to explain the current industrial action - this week sees the first of three consecutive five-day strikes, which has led to the cancellation of around half of BA flights from Heathrow - is the union’s bloody-mindedness. Elements of the press have been happy to repeat uncritically Walsh’s ludicrous assertion that Bassa is “a small rogue branch of a trade union”. According to The Daily Telegraph, Bassa has “taken the concept of mindless militancy to a whole new level”. In fact it is difficult to imagine a less militant bunch (in normal circumstances at any rate) than airline stewards and stewardesses.
The same press failed to criticise last week’s high court ruling that the cabin crew strike was illegal because the union had not provided all members involved with the apparently vital piece of information that the massive vote for industrial action had included 11 spoilt ballot papers. Even the appeal court found this judgement so embarrassing and liable to bring ‘industrial relations’ law into disrepute that it promptly overturned it.
Equally absurd was the coverage of the last-minute BA-union talks on May 22. Readers will be aware that the negotiations, held at the Euston headquarters of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, ended in disarray, after several dozen comrades from the Socialist Workers Party invaded the Acas building. This was disingenuously linked to the fact that Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, was tweeting away on his Blackberry during the meeting.
According to the London Evening Standard editorial, “it seems questionable how serious Unite was about finding a resolution to the strike … Derek Simpson was using Twitter to communicate with his supporters before and during the interruption of the talks by militant protestors.” As for The Daily Telegraph’s leader writer (who, by the way, found it “surprising to discover [the SWP] still exists”), he thought that tweeting updates to the public was no “different from shouting the odds out of the window”.
So tweets from ‘Dereksimpsonjgs’ during the negotiations, such as “Fear of more sackings to come”, are the equivalent of sabotage, are they? It seems they - either inadvertently or deliberately - encouraged the SWP invasion. And did you know that Simpson even had the nerve to tweet, “I am at Wembley for England match” two days later - at the very time his actions were causing such distress to passengers?
But what is wrong with union members being able to follow what their full-timers are up to at the negotiating table (even if the information has to be relayed “out of the window”)? Actually, the whole thing should be fully out in the open. That way not only would Willie Walsh be exposed, but it would certainly help to hold trade union representatives to account.
However, as Unite says, “The antics of the SWP and references to tweeting are peripheral.” Those “antics” (see p5) did not actually prevent a deal from being struck. That was down to the intransigence of BA on the question of the restoration of cabin crew travel rights (removed as ‘punishment’ for the first round of industrial action in March). As for the disciplinary action taken against strikers, it is reported that “progress” had been made on this issue - although how much the union has been prepared to concede is not yet known.
The overall picture, then, is that of Unite and its cabin crew members very reluctantly agreeing to strike in an attempt to defend their jobs, with BA looking for an excuse to dismiss them or provoke them into quitting as part of its drive to impose “regime change” - not so much on the union, as Simpson claims in one of his tweets, but on the cabin crew themselves.
That is why management has been prepared to ride out the strikes, which will cost the company £110 million if they all go ahead. This comes on top of the announcement of annual pre-tax losses for 2009-10 of £531 million. It is a huge gamble, but the BA board can see no way it will be able to compete with other carriers other than by dumping its existing workforce in order to transfer many of its current flights to a new, low-cost, low-fare subsidiary, which would operate alongside a more upmarket branch of the company. Following the recent recession, there is huge overcapacity amongst airlines competing for holidaymakers and other travellers - problems that have been exacerbated by massive short-term losses caused by the recent volcanic dust crisis. The price war between carriers looks certain to hot up over the summer, as airlines desperately try to persuade passengers it is safe and reliable to fly.
The problems faced by these capitalist rivals are real enough, yet elements of the left insist on denying them. The Morning Star headline - “BA blame lies with one man” - implies it should all be put down to Willie Walsh’s eccentric stubbornness rather than the logic imposed on his company by the economic downturn. But Socialist Worker is far worse: “Walsh is using the recession as an excuse to go on the offensive,” one anonymous writer claims. Another explains: “BA says it has made a pre-tax loss of £531 million. In some areas, BA’s revenue is down, but overall the company is making money. It made a net profit of £182 million in the year up until March 31 2010 - largely through gambling on the money markets. BA doesn’t need to make cuts.”
What exactly is being said here? That BA has falsified its accounts? That there is no overcapacity caused by the recession? Whatever the intention of this foolish claim, it serves only to disarm workers, as they attempt to resist the accelerating attacks. Instead of encouraging such a blinkered approach - the equivalent of identifying one unscrupulous company in isolation from the system of capital itself - we must emphasise that BA workers cannot win in the long term unless their struggle is unified with those in other airlines.
As meagre as the wages and conditions of BA cabin crew are, they are indeed ‘privileged’ compared to those of the company’s low-cost rivals. The instinctively sectional response of trade union bureaucrats, having recognised that their employer cannot compete with its current relatively high wage bill, is to settle for the ‘best possible deal in the current circumstances’ - whose parameters are indeed limited by the union’s own operating field: the single company. Unite bureaucrats like Simpson and joint general secretary Tony Woodley may rail against the ‘race to the bottom’, but their ability to negotiate is in the final analysis restricted by what the market dictates.
The job of communists and revolutionary socialists is to adopt a political approach. The only way to end the ‘race to the bottom’ is to agitate for a single set of demands across the industry - wages and conditions must be levelled up, not down. That means a winning other workers, crucially those at Heathrow and Gatwick, to respect picket lines and beyond that building a common trade union uniting all airline workers, not only in Britain but across the whole world. The airline industry is international almost by definition.
However, even this would be insufficient. Overcapacity cannot be wished away and the weakest will still go to the wall, even if it becomes impossible to undercut rivals because of trade union international organisation. It is correct to demand state subsidies and full protection or alternative jobs for workers whose companies go under. But we must also stress that what is required is an alternative political economy - that of the working class.
We do not accept that we must bow to the anarchic ravages of the market, determined by crisis-ridden capitalism’s cycles of production. Social organisation must be based on production for need, democratically determined by the mass of the people.
- The Daily Telegraph May 24.
- London Evening Standard May 24.
- The Daily Telegraph May 24.
- Editorial, May 24.
- Socialist Worker May 29.