Fifteen hundred British Airways (BA) cabin crew packed into a union meeting at Kempton Park racecourse on Monday of this week.
Cabin crew are currently balloting for fresh strikes over a range of attacks from their bosses. The ballot ends on Friday of next week.
Workers haven’t struck since June in their ongoing dispute with bullying boss Willie Walsh. But they remain in fighting mood.
Before any speeches began, crew were chanting, “Willie, Willie, Willie—Out, Out, Out!”
In a thinly veiled reference to previous joint general secretary of their Unite union, Derek Simpson, newly-elected general secretary Len McCluskey stressed his “absolute pride” to be associated with Bassa, the cabin crew section of Unite.
He praised the fighting spirit of crew and promised his “continued support and solidarity” for cabin crew. McCluskey also condemned the sacking last week of Nicky Marcus, a Bassa rep, calling it “an absolute disgrace”.
McCluskey won loud applause when he announced that he had given authority for the union’s solicitors to be used to support victimised crew. He also revealed that he had written to the general secretary of Balpa, the pilots’ union, saying he expected the union to make clear its opposition to strikebreaking.
“If that basic task of trade unionism isn’t followed, then I will call for their expulsion from the TUC,” he added, to cheers from the floor.
Crew backed McCluskey’s fighting talk. Yet they retain a healthy distrust of union officials. The first speaker from the floor said it was positive to hear McCluskey’s “good words” but that “we’ve been here before with Tony Woodley”.
She asked McCluskey if he would let crew down as previous union leaders had done. McCluskey defended Woodley’s record while also conceding that “mistakes had been made” and said, “I wish I could turn the clock back”.
He didn’t spell out what exactly he would’ve done differently.
Another worker asked what could be done to involve other workplaces with Unite members in the BA dispute. Again, McCluskey was vague. He said that he would try to “get the message across” to Unite members that the fight at BA affected them too.
But despite the fact that Unite is Britain’s biggest union with huge potential power, he didn’t promise to try to escalate the dispute or organise solidarity action for crew.
McCluskey told cabin crew, as previous union leaders did, that “the only people who will determine what’s acceptable will be you”.
Yet previous union leaders who promised this went on to engage in months of fruitless discussions with Walsh while keeping ordinary crew members in the dark. They also failed to call fresh strikes after crew threw out a derisory offer from BA in July.
The mood of the meeting meant McCluskey was forced to promise crew, “I will not let you down. I will make certain that whatever you want, you will get.”
It’s good that McCluskey has wasted little time in beginning a fresh ballot of crew and that he is stressing his support for workers.
But previous experience shows that crew can’t simply rely on warm words from officials. They will need to organise to keep the pressure on their leaders if they are to keep him to his word.
If cabin crew vote for strikes, they must demand that McCluskey wastes no time in naming strike dates and organising a programme of hard-hitting action that can win.