Hundreds of Unite members packed into a solidarity meeting for British Airways cabin crew at the Unite conference on Monday lunchtime.
The mood in the meeting was one of bitter anger and disbelief at the vindictive way that BA boss Willie Walsh is treating crew.
Sharon Owens, a cabin crew member, opened the meeting. “I’ve worked for BA for 33 years and never seen anything like this,” she said. “This is about imposition without negotiation.
“There is a climate of fear within British Airways.
“Walsh’s plan for a new fleet is a Trojan horse to make BA into a low-cost airline. BA pleads poverty, but it has spent millions on this dispute.
“Cabin crew are not lazy or dysfunctional. We can fight fires and deliver babies.
“This dispute is about Walsh trying to destroy our hard won terms and conditions. Are we going to let that happen?”
The crowd responded with “No!” and chants of “Willie, Willie, Willie – Out, Out Out!”
There were many crew in the room and it was a rare chance for them to directly question their general secretaries, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, on the dispute.
But the chair made clear that crew shouldn’t speak – saying that they would get a chance to talk to Simpson and Woodley privately later. Instead she invited other workers to ask questions.
One cabin crew worker interrupted Simpson anyway as he was speaking. She asked him, “What is Walsh getting out of this?”
Simpson’s reply was that Walsh was out to smash the union and hoped that cabin crew would crumble before he had to make any concessions.
But much of Simpson’s earlier speech had been the kind of negative talk that could demoralise strikers. He “confessed” that he thought calling 12 days of strikes at Christmas (which he initially announced as seven and had to be corrected by crew) was a mistake.
He claimed that “public opinion” was the most important thing and that much of it was against cabin crew.
Fortunately other speakers pointed out that this wasn’t true. Jim Sheridan MP, chair of the Unite group of MPs, spoke of his experience at Glasgow airport during the recent strikes.
“An awful lot of people support you, we could tell from the amount of people tooting their horns and waving.
“Don’t believe Sky news – you do have public support.”
He stressed the importance of the fight at BA. “There are other Willie Walsh’s around the corner waiting to come out,” he said.
“This is about the future of the trade union movement.”
During the discussion, a BA worker from a Newcastle call centre also talked about the support that crew have. “Our 400 members are all behind you,” he said. “Walsh hasn’t been as successful in dividing the workforce as he thinks.
“Our members know that, when he’s finished with you, he’s coming for us.”
Woodley used his speech to stress the fact that Walsh “doesn’t want a settlement” because he “wants a company that’s union-free”.
He said that Walsh’s refusal to fully reinstate staff travel discounts to crew – which doesn’t cost the company anything – was “vindictive, unnecessary and petty”.
The logical conclusion is that talks with Walsh won’t get anywhere unless backed up by strong strike action. The question is – will Unite deliver it?
One Unite member talked about the need to spread strike action among other BA workers. He asked Simpson and Woodley, “When are we going to organise meetings among baggage handlers and check-in staff?” to applause and shouts of “yes!” from the crew.
Woodley said that “in my world” solidarity action would be “fantastic”. But he said that “in the real world” it would be illegal action that would put Unite’s funds at risk.
It’s true that vicious anti-union laws exist to try and stop workers taking effective action. Walsh has tried to use them several times against crew already.
But it isn’t true that workers can’t take illegal action and win. Walkouts at the Lindsey Oil Refinery last year sparked a wave of unofficial walkouts that saved jobs.
Occupations at Visteon car plants factories last year won redundancy payouts for sacked workers.
Shell tanker drivers struck over pay in 2008 – and won massive solidarity from other workers who refused to cross picket lines and effectively joined the action unofficially.
In all three disputes, the workers were in the Unite union. They took unofficial action and they won.
BA cabin crew need to win their dispute fast. On 12 June Willie Walsh will be able to legally sack strikers without fear of any comeback. The quickest way to beat him would be to shut down Heathrow airport – but that will require other BA workers to walk out and join striking cabin crew.
Cabin crew must argue with the workers to support them – and they should demand that their union leadership doesn’t sit on its hands but does everything within its power to make sure they win.