Major trade union disputes are few and far between these days. The globalised economy, overseen in Britain by the New Labour Government, has transformed the relationship between workers and employers, and it is no longer possible to win a strike in the old way, by staying out until the management is prepared to accept a compromise.
Almost any strike these days quickly becomes political and is doomed to fail unless and until the unions can learn the lessons from this new period of history. Disputes have to be extended to other sections of workers and unions. Most importantly, the New Labour Government, which is the government of big business, has to be challenged.
The present dispute at British Airways, where nineteen out of twenty BA cabin staff, members of the Transport and General Workers Union, have voted to strike, is a case in point. The dispute, which has been building up over two years or more, is over pay, sick leave and staffing levels. Union members are angry that their pay and terms and conditions have been eroded by a new management regime, and that staff are under pressure to turn up for work even when they are ill. This kind of huge majority in favour of a strike should mean that the union will go ahead and lead a strike, if necessary, against BA, and that they should be ready to involve other BA workers. The union has a powerful presence at the company and should challenge the new conditions imposed by the company in its attempt to remain more competitive than other airlines.
There is a climate of crisis at BA. With a black hole in the pensions fund, an unpopular plan to raise the retirement age by five years all round, over 800 flights cancelled during the Xmas rush because of the fog, and a target of saving £450m over two years, the company could well decide to dig in for a major confrontation in the hope of weakening the unions. They will be encouraged to do this by the outcome of the last major dispute at the company two years ago, when nearly 800 Gate Gourmet catering workers, on a very low wage, walked out. They were locked out and sacked and their US employers then organised strike breakers to do their work. The union failed to support them, even when baggage handlers and other BA workers courageously walked out in support, costing BA two days of business.
The union, terrified at the prospect of being sued under the Tory anti-union laws against secondary picketing and at the prospect of upsetting their cosy partnership with BA, ordered the BA workers back to their jobs and left about 100 Gate Gourmet workers sacked and defenceless. And BA then sacked the two shop stewards who had lead the supporting walk-out. This shambles was underlined at the end of last year when an industrial tribunal ruled that the strike was illegal because the union did not support it and the workers chose not to work. The cabin staff are, however, well organised and are not used to losing, so the union leadership could conceivably find itself, horror of horrors, on a collision course with BA and forced into a fight.
After the 96% historic vote in favour of strike action, Transport and General Workers’ Union member said: “I have never seen anything like it in all my 20 years service with the company. We are mild unconfrontational people who do not want to strike, but feel we have no alternative due to the bullying, intimidation and harassment from Willie Walsh and his minions, with their macho style of management. It was a nuclear moment when the result was announced.”
The stakes could become very high. To win the unions will need to come together, broaden the issues, and be ready to take on the New Labour government. One thing is certain. If the strike goes ahead, it will quickly become vicious. If a compromise is reached, the fundamental issues will resurface in a slightly different form, very soon.
By AWTW's Industrial Editor