Last summer’s Heathrow check-in dispute of just 36 hours duration will not figure in any statistics, but it was no flash in the pan.
The victory last week at Servisair, Gatwick, is the latest sign of a steady recovery of confidence and organisation among airport workers.
The British Airways check-in workers who struck last year have consolidated their position since. The “swipe-in” project that provoked the dispute is dead in all but name.
But the dispute had a deeper effect, raising hopes of a new era for workers in the aviation industry after years of job cuts, especially in the wake of 9/11.
There has been an increase in the number of disputes in the aviation industry, particularly at Heathrow. These have a different character from previous years.
They have tended to be settled more quickly—Aviance and BA settled their pay disputes this year before any strike action took place. The strikes at Swissport produced a deal within a matter of weeks, and AFS refuellers got a handsome deal after a single day’s action.
People are beginning to expect more from their unions, and even talk of switching unions if they think they are not delivering.
That’s why some people are nervous about talk of mergers, since this option would be lost. That also means that there is more talk of union rivalry, but this tends to be overplayed.
The support from GMB members at Stansted for the TGWU members at Servisair in Gatwick is the most recent example. There are other changes.
First, there is evidence of a new leadership emerging within the unions. Although check-in workers at BA have a solid history of union organisation, last year was the first time that they took the lead in challenging the company.
During the Swissport dispute there was a high level of involvement on the picket lines by manual workers and check-in staff.
This change means that the new union reps are likely to be women and young people from Asian backgrounds—more of a reflection of the workforce.
Second, we are having to fight over a wider terrain. I am amazed at the variety of issues that are coming the union’s way—pay, pensions, bullying, outsourcing, shifts, job cuts, maternity, flexible working.
People who would normally be reluctant to make a fuss become far more determined when the care of their family is at stake.
The Servisair dispute showed that management are looking to take a hard line— which made the victory all the more important.
We’ve seen John Menzies try union-busting tactics in the current dispute at Heathrow.
The pay dispute affecting 4,000 TGWU members at BAA could be a major test case. I don’t believe the bosses can put the toothpaste back in the tube—people are grumpier than ever, and are starting to feel their power.
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