British Airways cabin crew should not only be angry at the partisan decision of the courts to declare their planned strike illegal – they should also direct their rage at the way the leaders of the Unite union have conducted themselves.
Unite’s leaders spent months in negotiations with BA management only to stand by when contractual changes were suddenly introduced without agreement. BA then went ahead and reduced crew numbers on flights and imposed a pay freeze while new entrants begin on far worse conditions.
Any self-respecting union leadership would have called the 12,700 cabin crew out on strike there and then in response to BA’s provocation. But oh no, Unite’s leaders dillied and dallied out of sheer fear, not just at what BA’s response might be but at the consequences of defying the anti-trade union laws.
These laws, introduced by the Tories in the early 1990s, make it illegal to have a strike without a ballot. This is not aimed at enhancing democracy but at defusing workers’ anger while weeks are spent on an expensive ballot operation in place of the traditional show of hands at a mass meeting.
Even then, Unite’s officials couldn’t get it right. They opened the door to a BA challenge by balloting a small group of cabin crew who had taken voluntary redundancy. Of course, the 92% vote in favour of a strike on an 80% turnout easily outweighed those balloted in error. But with the media engaged in a ferocious witch-hunt, Mrs Justice Cox ruled that the ballot did not conform to the 1992 Trade Union Act.
As an official from Bassa, the branch of Unite that covers the cabin crew, is reported to have said: “"The decision questions your faith in the whole system. It makes you wonder if you have the right to strike any more.”
Precisely. The right to strike has long since disappeared in Britain and the union leadership has, by and large, gone along with this. After yesterday’s court ruling, the leaders of Unite declared it “a bad day for democracy”. Well, if they are so concerned about democracy, why didn’t just they simply defy the court and go ahead with the strike instead or planning another ballot? If they had done that, it would have been a blow for democracy against undemocratic laws.
At one time, union leaders were bold enough to defy the state and fight for their members. In 1972, the predecessors of Unite in the Transport and General Workers Union ignored anti-union laws brought in by the Heath Tory government. As a result, five dockers were jailed for contempt of court. This sparked moves towards a one-day General Strike and the ruling class quickly found a legal loophole to free the dockers within days. Within a few years, the unions compelled a Labour government to abolish the anti-union laws.
How things have changed! New Labour has retained virtually all the anti-union legislation passed by Thatcher. Former prime minister Tony Blair congratulated himself for declaring that Britain had the most draconian anti-union laws in Europe. And the union leaders have done nothing in 12 years of New Labour to change the position. Yet rank and file trade unionists like those who staged “unofficial” walkouts at the Lindsey oil refinery have demonstrated that the anti-union laws quickly disintegrate in the face of mass defiance.
The moral of this tale is that in order to defend jobs, wages and conditions in the midst of a capitalist slump, serious, dedicated, principled leaders, who are not frightened of the state, are absolutely essential. Hot air and bluster are well past their use-by date.