“We’re not a militant bunch of people, but we’ve been forced to do something,” says Julie, a long haul cabin crew worker at British Airways (BA). “If we don’t stand up now we don’t know what will happen next.”
The experience of bosses ripping up contracts, imposing changes without negotiation, enforcing petty disciplinary crackdowns, slashing wages and attacking pensions will be familiar to millions.
But 14,000 cabin crew workers at BA have delivered a magnificent response to their ruthless bosses – a dramatic 12-day strike set to begin next Tuesday.
BA wants to slash jobs, freeze and cut pay and rip up working agreements. It has already imposed cuts without union agreement – slashing numbers of cabin crew on flights.
I joined thousands of cabin crew as they crammed into a mass meeting at Sandown racecourse on Monday this week to hear the result of their strike ballot.
Republica’s song “Ready to Go” aptly blared out over the loud speakers.
The workers applauded when their Unite union officials announced that over 80 percent of workers had voted – a higher turnout than in a previous ballot for action in 2007.
But when the vote for strike action was announced – over 92 percent in favour – the official announcing it was drowned out as workers leapt out of their seats, cheering, jumping up and down, and clapping.
Cabin crew see the current assault as the forerunner of much bigger attacks to come. They are angry at the hypocrisy of their union-busting boss Willie Walsh.
“We think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” added Ryan. “They’re throwing our agreements out the door, and if they get away with it this time, what’s next?”
The impressive turnout and size of the yes vote reflects the determined spirit among workers.
“We’re standing up for what is right,” said Shazad, who has worked at BA for 13 years. “We don’t want to strike but we’ve been pushed into a situation where we have to fight back.
“The cut to cabin crew numbers is the first step in a long line of things to come. They’ve put a gun on the shoulder of the recession and they’re using it as an excuse to cut costs.
“There’s a general management culture which says, cut the throats of workers to get a bonus. We’re standing up against a very stubborn and ruthless person – but I think we can win.”
The right wing media like to paint cabin crew as well-paid workers enjoying cushy jobs, getting paid to travel around the world. The reality is very different.
“We’re not well-paid – we’re just ordinary people with mortgages and families to feed,” said Julie. “It’s not true that we get to see lots of different places, we’re too exhausted.
“And it’s hard missing people’s birthdays and Christmas because you’re halfway around the world.
“Since BA imposed the cuts to staff numbers it has been harder. We don’t want to disrupt passengers’ flights but the only thing we can do to stop the cuts is to withdraw our labour.”
“There’s been such a high vote because companies are making lots of money and then they cut your wages,” added Peter. “I’m not very well-paid. I’m 28 and I have to protect my future.”
Claire has worked as a cabin crew member for 23 years. She told Socialist Worker that workers need to take militant action to beat the cuts.
“Twelve days of strikes is big – it has to be to make an impact,” she said. “The nature of our job means that if we struck for one or two days only a few of us would be involved.
“This way, we will show Willie Walsh that the whole of the workforce is determined to strike. We have to send a message to him that we’re serious.
“Our job might seem easy from the outside. But when you’re in the air and one person has overall responsibility for the flight, losing one of the team makes it impossible.
“Willie Walsh accuses us of wrecking BA by striking. But it is him who will wreck BA if he gets away with the cuts – and then next year he’ll be off somewhere else doing the same thing.
“It will be us that are left to pick up the pieces.”
BA workers’ names have been changed