As New Labour ministers lined up with the right-wing press over the weekend to condemn the strike by British Airways cabin crew, you had to ask yourself what had the national leaders of the Unite trade union done to prepare for a confrontation that the company had clearly planned for some time. The answer is not very much.
While BA management implemented a systematic policy of bullying and harassment – suspending or disciplining 38 crew members, nearly half of them union reps – Unite joint leaders Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley were shocked by the turn of events. So much so that at a recent Unite national committee, they apparently turned on Len McCluskey, the assistant general secretary who was then in charge of the dispute.
Under marching orders from Gordon Brown to get the dispute settled, Woodley took over the talks and tried to broker a deal based on offering up more than £60 million in “savings” at the expense of the workforce. Finally, the penny dropped. Woodley announced that BA chief executive Willie Walsh was leading a war against Unite with the intention of undermining the union within the airlne.
Writing to striking cabin crew – who have defied vilification and slander to sustain their three-day strike against job and pay cuts – Woodley said: “I pledge that your union Unite is putting all its resources and strength into supporting your dispute and securing a decent agreement.”
If that were truly the case, then the cabin crew would not be left to fight alone. For it is clear that the strike-breaking operation mounted by BA can only be countered by solidarity action by other Unite members working for the airline. The future of the whole union is at stake and that is what the membership needs to be told.
That would require the union to defy the anti-union laws that ban solidarity action, legislation that was introduced by the Tories in the 1980s and retained by the present government. Cabin crew should demand that Unite’s leaders stop pussy-footing around and get serious if the union is to have a future.
It will be an uphill battle. Unite has given £11 million to keep New Labour afloat and is diverting huge resources in a bid to get Brown back into Downing Street. This is the same Brown whose foreign secretary David Miliband said yesterday: "We deplore the strike...the way to resolve these disputes is through negotiation. It's damaging for the company, it's damaging obviously for the crews and it's damaging for the country." From a strictly business point of view, you could say that Unite’s return on investment in New Labour is well below the bottom line.
BA’s problems are just one indication of the way the economic and financial system is taking its toll. The market for all sorts of goods and services, including flights, has plummeted in the recession. Capitalism has but one answer – cut wages, shed jobs and destroy capacity. And what does this do? It deepens the crisis and makes a full-blown recession a certainty. That’s how mad and bad this system is.
The assault on BA cabin crew is part of a general offensive by the employers – public as well as private – to destroy hard-won conditions like pensions and decent wages. Network Rail is doing the same to signal workers and the universities are planning large-scale sackings. And this is before the savage cuts in public spending that will follow the general election, whoever comes out on top.
Resistance to paying for the crisis is clearly building up. We urgently need a strategy that turns defensive action into an offensive that highlights the capitalist economic and political system itself as the problem. A good first step would be to “hang on to your vote” at the election and take part in building People’s Assemblies throughout the country.