The British Airways (BA) dispute is at a key moment.
Union-busting BA boss Willie Walsh is on the attack and the Unite union’s national leaders are in retreat.
The latest outrageous assault from management is the suspension of union rep Nicky Marcus.
She is charged with “interfering in the employment relationship between British Airways and its employees”—which you might think is what trade unionists are supposed to do.
Nicky has developed a reputation as an excellent rep, a fearless defender of people who find themselves in difficulty.
Her suspension comes on top of 50 other suspensions and nine sackings.
Cabin crew—who rejected Walsh’s latest appalling offer by two to one on 20 July—remain defiant and determined not to give in. Their courage and fighting spirit is amazing.
But the union is not hitting back. The overwhelming impression the national leaders give is of retreat. A letter in the names of Unite’s joint general secretaries Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley sent out last week repudiated a meagre call for non-cooperation with management over the imposition of new, and unagreed, duties.
On 2 August a posting was published on the website of cabin crew section of Unite, Bassa, entitled “Closing window blinds at the end of your flight”.
It asked cabin crew not to agree to new instructions to close the blinds at the end of each flight.
Simpson and Woodley responded almost immediately saying, “This posting could be taken as a call to take industrial action.
“Cabin crew should ignore this posting and should close the window blinds at the end of each flight as instructed and work normally.”
In every strike there are arguments about tactics—the problem is that the union is not showing a clear way forward.
The result is a consensus among some sections of cabin crew that the only answer is to withdraw from any further action for an indefinite period.
A message this week from Bassa union officials says, “British Airways chief executive is simply not interested in a different deal, he prefers a strike and he wants it right now—as soon as possible.
“Why? He has a glut of strike breaking volunteers to use up from all around this airline, they are sitting in hotels doing nothing, waiting.
“If we strike and he operates 100 percent of services, he remains the Daily Mail’s union-busting poster boy. We, as crew and as a union, would be destroyed with no way back. We are not willing to put you into an obvious trap of his making.
“So what do we do as crew? We wait and continue to demand a fair solution, not forever but until the time is right.”
It adds that the union has been hugely weakened by Walsh and by scabbing.
Such a mood has been built from the top—through the failure to call another strike ballot, the reluctance to try to spread the action to other airport workers, and the lack of a call for solidarity from other workers.
It is not true that Walsh is all-powerful.
This week the result was due of a strike ballot among 6,185 airport workers. The ballot included security staff, engineers, firefighters and support staff at Heathrow, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Aberdeen and other airports.
If they struck at the same time as cabin crew it would cause chaos—and not just at BA.
If other staff refused to work on health and safety grounds because of the lack of proper safety cover then the airlines would be shut down at a key moment for their profits.
Walsh does not want such action. He fears it. Like all bullies he seems strong until he faces resistance.
The delay in holding the BA ballot makes such a joint official strike impossible. It will have to be done unofficially, which is harder.
The BA strikers have shown tremendous resolve. They need to demand that their union starts the strike ballot, calls for wider support, and acts with the BAA workers.