There’s nothing like a looming national strike to bring out the true class credentials of the political parties, together with the baying hound-dogs of the media. The democratically-agreed industrial action by 12,000 BA’s cabin crew workers in defence of their jobs, pay and conditions is certainly having this effect.
Leaders of all the major parties are only too anxious to condemn BA workers. Leading the pack are New Labour’s Lord Mandelson and transport secretary Lord Adonis (NB: There are no elections to the Lords). Adonis said yesterday: “I absolutely deplore the strike… it’s totally unjustified.” Today Gordon Brown declared: “It's not in the company's interest, it's not in the workers' interest and it's certainly not in the national interest."
Never mind the fact that cabin crew staff have now voted twice for strike action with overwhelming majorities. In the latest ballot nearly 79% of the membership voted 80.7% for action. New Labour, you will recall, was elected with the support of 25% of all registered voters at the last election. As for turnout, the BA ballot is far higher than anything you can expect in the upcoming general election.
And the notion peddled by the Tories that New Labour is “soft on the unions” is complete and utter hokum – and they know it. It is a fact that Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite, has paid a total of £11 million into the Blair and Brown’s coffers since 2007. It is the biggest single donor to New Labour. Without this support, New Labour would be unable to survive. The £11 million has brought Unite nothing in return.
Rather than making New Labour more pliable towards the interests of trade union members, the opposite is true. The rights of trade unions are perhaps even more restrictive than they were under the Tories. Secondary strikes and effective picketing remain illegal because this government retained all the anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher. Union leaders, with a few honourable exceptions, have fallen over backwards to comply with New Labour and its capitalist policies such as bailing out the banks.
Willie Walsh, BA’s chief executive, who is paid £735,000 a year, is determined to sack up to 2,000 staff and undermine the union Unite. The company has been running courses for strike breakers ever since the union’s first ballot showed a huge majority in favour of strike action. Walsh plans to use a 1,000-strong force of strike breakers to keep a skeleton service running and to defeat the strike.
Instead of getting ready to mobilise its membership at Heathrow and other airports against this threat, Unite leaders Len McCluskey and Tony Woodley have expressed shock at Adonis’ outright support for BA management. But this is a false naiveté. The real danger for BA cabin crew is that Unite leaders and the Trades Union Congress will quickly buckle under pressure and impose some rotten deal on their members. In any case, McCluskey and company certainly have no intention of defying the anti-union laws, which would be necessary to defeat BA’s strike-breaking actions with solidarity strikes.
British Airways, like the economy as a whole, in a major crisis. Walsh knows what is at stake. He needs to enfeeble the trade unions to save the airline for shareholder returns. Pretending that New Labour will broker a favourable compromise deal because it faces an election is living in a dangerous cloud cuckoo land. Precisely because of the election, Brown, Adonis and Mandelson will take the hard line. The future of a private corporation like BA is more important to them than the jobs and pay of the workforce.
A World to Win secretary