Over 3,000 British Airways (BA) workers crammed into an electric mass meeting at the Sandown racecourse on Monday of this week, as their Unite union prepared for a strike ballot.
BA bosses want to rip up the workers’ existing terms and conditions and impose new ones without agreement with the union.
The changes include pay cuts and freezes, the abolition of allowances, and a jobs cull.
BA is set to impose the changes from 16 November. Workers are furious – but there was a buoyant and confident mood in the meeting.
So many workers travelled to the meeting that the start was delayed twice.
But once it began, the most militant speeches got by far the best response.
Time and time again, union leaders argued that workers should not take any “unofficial” action. But anger among workers is so great that it may boil over.
One official told the crowd, “You must work your roster from the 16th onwards. BA will see it as unofficial action if you refuse to work your roster.”
The chair of the meeting also warned workers that phoning in sick after BA imposes changes could be seen as unofficial action.
Willie Walsh, head of BA, has a track record of pushing attacks on workers.
He was previously boss of Aer Lingus, where he introduced privatisation of cleaning services and slashed jobs in defiance of the unions.
Paul, who is in the Bassa part of Unite and a cabin crew member, was at Monday’s meeting and was taken aback by its size. “I’ve seen loads of people here who I thought were apathetic,” he told Socialist Worker.
“We’re sick of being told we have to make cutbacks because of the recession. BA’s ‘Project Columbus’ – its plan for the cuts – was there before the recession.
“Everyone sees this as an attempt to smash the union.”
Andrew, another cabin crew member, agreed. “BA wants to weaken the union,” he told Socialist Worker. “Then it can impose more cuts in the future. If it gets away with it then all the things we fought for will be gone.”
Workers feel that being part of cabin crew is a serious commitment and are angry at what they see as BA’s lack of respect for them. “I’ve been with BA for 33 years and it’s my life,” Dee told Socialist Worker. “I feel bitter and let down.
“I just did a flight where there was a medical emergency and you need experience to be able to deal with that, but BA’s plans will drive experienced workers out.
“Everyone thinks we’ve got cushy jobs, but what about the hours we work? I’ve got a 12-year old at home who doesn’t know if I’ll be at home at Christmas because I’m on standby to work.
Another crew member added, “BA wants to change our working life, to change the job I’ve done for 20 years. I’d rather go and stack shelves in Tesco than put up with that.
Another cabin crew member told Socialist Worker, “We’ve got 40 years of union agreements that BA wants to rip up. It wants to replace negotiation with imposition.”
Many BA workers see their dispute as linked to the wave of struggles that is spreading across Britain.
Sushy told Socialist Worker, “I think what BA is trying to do is indicative of a general culture where workers are coming under more and more attacks – whether it’s us, the post workers or rail workers.
“It seems like we’re going back to the bad old days of Margaret Thatcher. Those at the top are still getting their bonuses and we’re treated like we’re worthless.”
Some workers expressed concern in the meeting about what would happen after the ballot. Unite failed to call action after a previous industrial action ballot in 2007 – despite a massive 96 percent vote for action.
Questions from the floor forced one union leader to admit that, “We let you down” in 2007 and promise that, “Nobody will call off action on your behalf.”
A strong vote for action is likely. Cabin crew workers must not allow union leaders to scupper action again.
Unite is trying to get an injunction against BA to stop it from imposing the changes. A hearing is due in court on Thursday of this week.
But whatever happens, BA will remain determined to push through cuts, and workers will need to organise to fight them.
The ballot of around 14,000 workers ends on 14 December.