IN A great show of militancy, 500 British Airways (BA) customer service workers walked out on an unofficial 24-hour strike at Heathrow last weekend. The chaos this caused showed the enormous power workers have over the huge operation. They expressed a spirit of defiance that is growing in workplaces up and down the country. A Heathrow worker explains why these workers struck:
‘THIS WAS a rebellion of the rank and file. Hundreds of people walked off the job and stayed in their restrooms. When managers turned up to talk to them, they told them to fuck off. These are the people who spend all day in uniforms smiling at customers and hoping that they ‘have a nice day’. They’re the last people you would imagine to walk out unofficially and shout at the boss.
‘What happened at Heathrow could happen anywhere. With all the push to bring in ‘flexibility’ and ‘mobility’, companies everywhere are drawing back any dignity and control from their workers. The workers didn’t wait for the unions’ official backing. They just walked. There was a feeling of wanting to have a go. That feeling is widespread.
‘The timing and the scale of this walkout was a surprise, but I am not surprised it happened. For years BA has treated its workforce like numbers to be manipulated, not like real human beings. The workers’ action has shown BA bosses exactly who keeps the airlines running. The walkout was provoked by a monitoring system BA wants to introduce. It will mean workers having cards to swipe when they arrive and leave work. It means BA will have more control over their workforce, knowing when they come and go, and even when they go to the toilet.
‘Workers are afraid the system will be used to send them home when things are quiet and make them stay when it’s busy, which will make organising childcare impossible. It will be used to prevent ‘early ups’, which is important to the engineers. At the moment after they check in the last flight on their shift, they go home rather than just sit about doing nothing.
‘It has already been introduced for baggage staff and will be brought in for the engineers. BA thought they could bully workers in the weaker sections to accept the deal and then impose it on everyone. These workers have made a stand for everyone. BA wanted to bring the system in on Tuesday of this week. They may have expected a walkout then and been prepared to clamp down.
‘People weren’t prepared to wait. The action was wider and longer than even those organising it expected. I think the local stewards hoped for a token one-hour stoppage, but people just stayed out.
‘The bitterness has been building up for months. BA has used the excuse of 11 September 2001 to attack workers. It closed the pension scheme, and dished out a below inflation pay rise despite announcing profits of £125 million last year. It tried to take holidays away from part-time workers. BA is run by arrogant twits who get up people’s noses.
‘If the workers followed the official grievance procedure, their first official strike could not have been before next September. BA were clearly relying on this to avoid the threat of a strike at the height of the summer. Its arrogance led them to miscalculate. It has no idea of the anger it is provoking.
‘The engineers’ unions all withdrew from the partnership scheme with BA recently. They were frustrated because the so called partnership was all one way, with management offering no concessions. There are a swathe of general issues bubbling up. There is the loss of overtime payments. BA introduced new criminal record checks. Every worker needs a pass to go airside, including 20,000 engineers. Now, if you have an unspent conviction, no matter how trivial, you don’t get your pass reissued. No pass, no job.
‘BA want to cut 13,000 jobs by the end of this year. There is massive pressure to get rid of as many staff as possible.
It brought in ‘patterned absence’. It looks at sick records for the last three years, and anyone who was absent at two Christmases gets a disciplinary. Some 50 percent of the engineers now work permanent nights.
‘BA can’t rely on the unions to police their members. If the unions don’t show some resistance, the members have shown they will ignore their pleas. The lower down the scale you go, the more militant people are. People who have never been involved before had the guts to just walk out.’
CHECK-IN staff were back at work on Sunday, but their mood
remained defiant. ‘I don’t remember really deciding to do what we did – it just happened,’ said one worker. ‘People wanted to make a stand. You’re going to get grief anyway, so why not make it worthwhile? It’s us who take all the flak from people, who end up dealing with the mess. We don’t get any respect. I am sorry for those with kids who got delayed, but I don’t think it was our fault. I don’t really know what will happen now, but I am glad we did it.’
Another added, ‘They think we are stupid and will just take anything. They have pushed people to go part time and now they are messing about with our hours. I have a young family. I don’t think they have a clue what its like working down here, how stressful and demanding it can be. They want to be like Big Brother, spying on us all the time. They are treating us like juvenile delinquents that need to be tagged. It’s not that we want loads more – it’s that they are taking away what we do have. If you felt they listened to us a bit more it would be something. Maybe they will now.’
Reballots have opened the way to bigger struggle