By Frances Davis
In the face of an increasingly belligerent management approach, intent on seeking a confrontation with the union, Unite cabin crew members began seven days of industrial action last weekend, with three strike days set to be followed by four further days to begin this coming weekend. The stakes in this dispute should not be underestimated.
The dispute focuses on the union’s opposition to British Airways’ attempt to impose significant contractual changes on the workforce that would reduce pay and conditions. Proposals include the extension of working hours and the cutting of crew levels.
The union has not sought such a confrontation and has consistently made clear its willingness to negotiate. In contrast, BA’s management have set a path of belligerence, intent on breaking the union’s strength. Having deliberately provoked the current action by tabling last week a worse offer to its workforce than the one it had been offering previously, the management have further sought to intimidate staff not to join the strike action including with threats such as losing travel privileges and even being sacked, and to organise scabs.
Over the weekend BA management also set out to affect public opinion, attacking the action, and misrepresenting the extent of the strike, which Unite says was overwhelmingly successful with, for example just 9 rostered staff turning up for work at Heathrow out of 1,110. This is a strong response in the face of the concerted offensive against them. Support remained strong throughout the three days, with large numbers present in solidarity at the strike headquarters near Hatton Cross.
Elsewhere, the right wing and Blairite part of the government has been attempting to push government policy into a more belligerent stance in opposing Unite’s action. This dovetails with their position of fundamentally undermining Labour’s link with the unions, and that of pursuing a greater cuts agenda. The Tories, alongside some right wing media commentators, have also gone on the offensive to attack Unite’s link with Labour.
The dispute is among the early rounds in what will be ongoing struggles against a government agenda of cuts and attempts to drive down working class living standards in response to the current economic crisis. This current strike action also reveals that as well as anticipated resistance to public sector cuts, the attempts by many companies to address falling profits by attacking conditions and wages in the private sector is also likely to see further struggles.
Recent employment figures show further, not only an increase in unemployment, but also a shift to greater part-time and insecure temporary employment – a further way in which, by cutting hours and security, as well as pay, the burden of the current economic crisis is being transferred on to the working class. For example, Office of National Statistics figures show a clear rise in part time working, with people taking part time jobs as a result of being unable to find full time employment. This is particularly the case for women, with a sharp increase since 2004. In addition, the recent Labour Force Survey shows a year-on-year increase of 32 per cent of those in temporary work. Indeed, some 1.43 million people are now in temporary jobs, and 7.7 million in part-time jobs, according to the latest ONS figures. So, this rise in part-time and insecure work can be added to the widely anticipated assault on the public sector as further ways in which living standards are being attacked.
Not only is this cuts agenda wrong in principle – in driving down living standards – it will also prove no solution to the recession, but will make matters much worse, as a recent letter signed by over 50 MPs, economists, trade union leaders, commentators and academics pointed out.
In the letter they correctly argue that this strategy with cuts at its core risks sending the economy into deeper recession, and instead, a serious strategy of investment to stimulate the economy –which means more state intervention with control — is what is needed.
The current cuts planned are not only wrong, but will be disastrous for Labour – attacking working class and middle income layers of the electorate will not assist it in winning back the support it needs to stop a Tory government. Moreover, all the main parties are advancing cuts as a solution, but there should be no doubt that a future Conservative government would do so with more rapidity and brutality, with many more Willie Walsh-type approaches, to smash the position of the unions in order to drive down living standards even more rapaciously. As we have already seen, the BA cabin crew, after a year of talks, have found BA’s refusal to listen and imposition of cuts which would have a serious affect, have found themselves facing an unavoidable conflict.
It is clear how high the stakes are in this dispute. There is no doubt that the BA management plan has been hatched quite carefully to inflict the biggest defeat against the union. This is potentially a critical moment before the General election. If BA inflict a defeat on the union, then it is likely that such attacks on the working class will escalate – particularly if the Tories win. If they are forced to a compromise, then this will strengthen future struggles against future cuts and attacks on living standards. It will also set back the Labour right wing Blairite agenda of confrontation, which goes hand in hand with their economic strategy.
It is therefore vital, in the first instance, to organise the maximum possibly solidarity with the BA cabin crew in their struggle against these attacks – and back Unite’s calls for management to return to negations. Future rallies are planned around the next round of strikes and these should be flat out supported.
Moreover, an alternative economic strategy, based on investment not cuts is the way forward – both to defend living standards, jobs and services and for economic growth. On this basis Labour would gain more support in terms of stopping the Tories and what would be the disastrous return to right wing government in May.
Fuller material on the dispute can be found at http://www.unitetheunion.org