THE MEDIA coverage of the walkout at Heathrow missed the two most important issues - what conditions are like for the check-in staff and why they are so angry. Workers on BA's check-in counters are on between £200 and £240 a week before stoppages. Tabloid editors and columnists wouldn't get out of bed for that. Far from costing BA money, its low paid workers have contributed to huge profits over the years.
Now the check-in staff are one more group of workers who are being ground down by a giant multinational corporation. The mainly women workers have had to put up with years of low pay and being patronised as 'the girls' by management.
The walkouts were apparently provoked when one manager told a room full of workers, 'If you have children you shouldn't be in shift work.' He had to be escorted out for his own safety. One woman worker explains how that kind of attitude lies behind the management's plan to introduce swipe cards for workers clocking on:
'The swipe card is a side issue. Our fear is that under the new system they will take the data to restructure people's rotas. At the moment, staff know their rotas about three months in advance. We're able to swap shifts and plan family commitments, such as childcare. We have lots of people doing 'tarmac transfers' of babies and children. They can come into work at four in the afternoon and hand the children over to their partners. It only works because people know what they are doing months in advance.'
Another parent of two children, says, 'New starter rates are now so low it is the equivalent of working on a Tesco's checkout. Sometimes we do eight-hour shifts without a break. Sometimes we do 16 hours without a break. There are certain days on the rota which are 'compulsory changing rota slots'. That means they can be changed without any notice at all. Managers can call you with very little notice to tell you that they don't want you to work the shift you are down for and want you to work a different shift instead. It makes it impossible for you to run your life. The swipe card system is the final nail in the coffin. Conditions are being eroded for us. I love my job but I feel angry and demoralised.'
A single parent adds, 'I feel genuinely sorry for the travellers affected but if this is not resolved in our favour and we are forced to use the swipe cards, I will go on striking.'
One worker, who has worked on the check-in for five years, says, 'I have never been militant and I am not the type to strike. But I have childcare issues. I could be forced to do 14 hours one day, eight the next, two the next. When we have done short hours before, we were paid for a full shift. Now we might be sent home and not paid.'
Bosses have wasted millions
BA IS a giant company that has made enormous profits over the years. It will not go bust if it is forced to treat its workers with some respect. From March 2002 to March 2003 BA made a profit of £135 million. In the first half of last year BA profits rose by 62 percent, to £65 million. BA is sitting on a cash pile of £1.8 billion.
It was set to plead poverty this week by announcing a loss of £60 million over the last three months. But responsibility for that lies squarely with the bloated top management. They decided that the future of the company lay in concentrating on transatlantic business travellers.
BA slashed investment on other routes to cater for company executives. Then economic slowdown hit the US, followed by 11 September, and the bottom fell out of the business class market.
Instead of admitting their mistake, BA bosses hide behind the myth that they are Britain's 'national carrier', pulling out all the stops to provide a service for ordinary people going on holiday.
In fact, BA cares so little about the ordinary British holidaymaker that it sold off its budget airline operation because it felt it could not make enough profit.
It has gambled on ventures elsewhere in the world to get a bigger share of the luxury end of the market. Squeezing workers in the name of privatisation lay behind the spectacular profits at BA between 1987 and 1997.
Now, after a series of management disasters, bosses are again out to sack workers, outsource key jobs and make working conditions intolerable. One of BA bosses' biggest disasters was to continue pouring money into Concorde. It is costing them £84 million to get rid of it.
They'll use any excuse to attack us
BA BOSSES have used every excuse to attack jobs and conditions, says one longstanding Heathrow worker: 'The company used 11 September 2001 as a reason to attack our wages and conditions. They seize on every piece of bad news - if there isn't any, they invent it. It's the war, foot and mouth, SARS - next week it will be Chelsea losing a match. It's all just excuses to tell us if you don't accept this or that, BA is finished.
Now we have broken that mental block and taken action. The staff who walked out have no doubts about taking the action they did. It's had a huge impact across the airport. On the Monday after the walkout, the baggage handlers were offered really big bonuses to clear the luggage.
They told management to piss off. And the engineers are talking about balloting. Some of them say, 'Someone's having a go, we all should be. Our time is coming.' There is a desire across the airport for people to link arms. The company tells the press they will collapse if we ask for more.
But a company staff bulletin told us in June that BA had an operating profit. What happened with the check-in staff has put the wind in our sails.'
What we think
Union leaders should match this example
THE WALKOUTS at Heathrow showed that even a small group of workers can take on a multinational corporation. They did not wait for a ballot, which would have given the bosses weeks to prepare a scabbing operation.
And they did not fall for the argument that somehow those on £10,000 a year are in the same boat as the chief executive on over half a million. Since their walkout, the workers have been under tremendous pressure from the press, the government and some of their own union leaders.
Sir Bill Morris is about to retire as general secretary of the TGWU, but led the negotiations for his union. His determination to get a deal no matter what the price provoked a rebellion by TGWU stewards. The leaders of the GMB union have talked about facing down BA.
There is a mood among rank and file union members to make a stand. A strike planned for August bank holiday would soon have BA bosses begging for mercy. Talks between management and the unions were taking place as Socialist Worker went to press. Brendan Barber, the head of the TUC, is now involved. He was key to negotiating a deal which sold out the firefighters.
The interests of the check-in staff, or any other group of workers should not be left to him. Union leaders should match the courage of the check-in staff and call the kind of action that can win an inspiring victory for workers everywhere.
Figure it out
£1.8 billion is the pile of cash BA bosses are sitting on as reserves.
£135 million is the profit the multinational corporation made in the 12 months to March of this year.
No one should believe BA bosses when they plead poverty while raking in 60 times what their staff get.