British Airways (BA) is out to financially break one of Britain’s most important unions. Union activists at Heathrow airport have told Socialist Worker of a management plot to saddle the T&G union with a massive bill that would bankrupt it.
And if they don’t get away with that, they hope the threat will be enough to banish any threat of effective union action against BA in the future.
Three senior T&G officials — Pat Breslin, Mark Fisher and Iggy Vaid — are under investigation by BA management for their alleged role in the magnificent walkouts on 10 and 11 August by Heathrow workers in support of their colleagues at catering firm Gate Gourmet.
Iggy Vaid is also the member of the T&G executive, responsible for aviation.
The three deny that they ordered the unofficial action, and workers across the airport say that it was a spontaneous decision to show solidarity with those sacked at Gate Gourmet.
BA is not just looking at disciplining three key union reps. Some managers have spread stories about “bullying Asians” in an attempt to divide the workforce. And they also hope that they will collect evidence that Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the T&G, ordered the walkouts.
Under Thatcher’s anti-union laws, preserved by New Labour, this would open up the union to a charge of inciting illegal action. The company could present the T&G with a £40 million compensation bill.
One T&G trade union rep says, “We have heard that some of the questioning at the investigations has probed into Tony Woodley’s role and that phone records are being examined to see who rang who on the key day.
“It is also an open secret that newspapers are bidding to get someone to say that Tony Woodley ordered the strike. I know of one rep who was offered £350,000 if they could come up with the story. Some of us wonder if the bribe money came just from the right wing press or whether there was BA cash involved as well.”
And it would also be remarkable if the government has not been consulted on BA’s strategy.
Ron Eddington ceases to be BA’s chief executive this week. Gordon Brown announced earlier this year that Eddington will then be recruited as a transport adviser.
Is it likely that Eddington does not discuss his labour relations with ministers?
Interviews with the Heathrow Three were to be completed this week. The company, and its new chief executive Willie Walsh — fresh from battling with the unions at Aer Lingus — will then weigh up what it can get away with.
Tony Woodley has already warned BA that it should not victimise its workers and that a strike ballot will be called if they do.
BA must not be allowed to break the T&G. The TUC and Labour Party conference heard calls for the reform of the anti-union laws. But ministers have made it clear they are not going to change anything substantial.
The future of the unions will be determined by battles like those at Heathrow. The unions have to use all their strength to beat BA’s plan.