Cabin crew at British Airways (BA) will strike for 20 days during May and June, dealing a fantastic blow to bullying boss Willie Walsh.
What happens at BA will be pivotal for the class struggle in Britain. Every trade unionist must organise urgent solidarity with the cabin crew.
Crew will take part in four five-day strikes – 18 to 22 May, 24 to 28 May, 30 May to 3 June and 5 to 9 June. This follows their seven days of strikes in March.
They face a series of attacks, including job cuts that were imposed without agreement with the workers’ Unite union in November, as well as pay cuts and freezes.
BA also wants to change workers’ conditions and to rewrite the way that the company negotiates with trade unions, tearing up existing agreements.
Walsh wants a “new fleet” of cabin crew at BA on lower pay and worse conditions. All new workers would become part of this new fleet so that, eventually, it would encompass the whole of the cabin crew.
If Walsh gets away with it he will target the rest of BA’s workers – and other bosses will feel emboldened to go on the offensive too.
BA’s backers in the right wing media will unleash an avalanche of lies. During the last strike, newspapers like the Daily Mail claimed that the workers enjoyed salaries of £29,000 a year.
In fact, more than three quarters of BA cabin crew earn less than £20,000 a year.
The starting wage is around £11,000. Many workers rely on tax credits or second jobs.
Cabin crew have seen their wages fall. Figures from the Civil Aviation Authority show that cabin crew wages fell by over 4 percent in real terms between 2001 and 2008.
It’s true that cabin crew at BA earn more than some working for other airlines. But their pay shouldn’t be cut – the pay of all cabin crew should rise to a level they can live on.
BA claims it has to make cuts because the company is losing money. Yet its cuts plan predates these losses.
A confidential BA document, codenamed “Project Columbus”, was leaked in June 2008. It detailed plans to cut pay, introduce the new fleet and tear up existing agreements with staff.
BA made a pre-tax profit of £37 million between April and June 2008 – a drop in profits but a profit nonetheless. Walsh received a 6 percent pay rise the same year and an extra £90,000 in his pension fund.
When BA workers struck in March, Walsh spent millions training scab crew, hiring replacement flights and paying customers to rebook flights with other airlines or refunding them.
Like bosses everywhere, Walsh is using the recession to try and force down workers’ pay and conditions. In reality, the money exists to pay crew decent wages.
Walsh’s vindictive behaviour during the dispute has exposed his real goal. He has bullied and intimidated cabin crew – removing their staff travel discount, making it impossible for some to get to work.
He has suspended more than 50 workers and union reps on trumped up charges.
Leading union activists have come under the most fire. Last week BA sacked Duncan Holley, secretary of Bassa, the cabin crew section of Unite. BA’s behaviour shows its true objective – to smash union organisation so it can ram through cuts and drive down working conditions.
The leadership of Unite should have announced strike dates before now.
Cabin crew want to fight. Many have been asking why their union has been so slow to act while Walsh continued his offensive.
Certain Unite officials didn’t want strikes that could put pressure on Labour in the run-up to the election. Their delay was a mistake – but the battle is far from over.
Announcing 20 days of action is the right thing to do. It sends a clear signal to Walsh and his friends in the City that workers are serious about fighting his attacks.
On 12 June it will be 12 weeks since the first strike date on 20 March. Under employment law, Walsh will be able to sack those who have struck after this period of time.
Workers need to win this dispute quickly and militant action is the way to do it.
If cabin crew picketed out other BA workers and closed Heathrow they could win their dispute in days and inflict a crushing defeat on Walsh.
They should demand that Unite takes action to shut the airport – officially or unofficially – and if Unite’s leadership refuses then they should do it themselves.
We can’t underestimate the importance of the fight at BA.
A victory for BA workers would send ripples throughout the entire boss class – and shift the balance of class forces in our favour.