british airways strike: a million christmases ruined?

by David Broder

Don’t ruin a million Christmases: BA chief’s appeal as he goes to court to halt strike (Daily Mail, 16th December)

Cartoon in today's Times

The proposed British Airways strike has brought down an avalanche of media attacks on the airline’s employees and the Unite union. Much as propaganda about “old ladies not receiving their Christmas cards” blighted the Royal Mail dispute last month, again the corporate press and the BBC are blaming Scrooge-ish “union barons” for their lack of festive cheer. But does the wintry weather really excuse a two year pay freeze, cuts in crew numbers and 4,900 redundancies? Not so, said a thumping 92% majority of BA workers on an 80% turnout, a ballot result showing both the level of anger and the desire to fight on to a victorious conclusion, given that the action will go on for a whole 12 days beginning on December 22nd.

Broadly speaking, in the papers there has been particularly heavy focus on the views of management, and also of passengers who simply reflect the idea that the strike will cause them problems, so they oppose the strike. Much as the running-down of the Post Office and London Underground ticket offices are intimately connected with those workers’ disputes, Unite argues that the cuts in crew numbers will worsen the British Airways service: but as with the CWU and RMT in respect to the post and Tube, the media will not allow this Unite position to get a hearing.

The legal challenge by British Airways management to the strike has been swallowed by the press as if it were solely some apolitical matter for the courts to rule on the definition of the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act and supposed ballot irregularities. Yet the enthusiasm for taking action is plainly huge: proposed twelve day strike action received a 92% ‘Yes’ vote on an 80% turnout and thousands packed out a strike meeting this Monday. Going to the courts is nothing but a management ploy to silence the workforce, far from merely some invocation of expert and “impartial” legal opinion about the count.

A BBC website article also looks to settle the matter by calling in “specialist” analysis: “It strikes me as a bit of a collective death wish reminiscent of the 1970s,” says Murray Steele, airline specialist from Cranfield School of Management. Or else listen to the views of Andy Cook, chief executive of the employee relations consultancy Marshall-James, “There’s probably some kind of disconnect between management and staff, and the union is probably making the most of that disconnect. The management has got to do something.”

This reflects the idea that perhaps the workers do have just grievances, but are being misled by “dinosaur” trade union militants because they are too thick to understand that standing up for yourself is not worthwhile. Today’s Times even carried a piece entitled ‘Dispute grounded in internal politics’ claiming the strike to be the creation of the Unite United Left, “whose founding principles include “the achievement of a socialist economic, social and political system”.” If only this red-scare nonsense were true, we would have a very different United Left.

Such patronising “expert” opinion, firmly on the side of management, is accompanied by heavy focus on the disruptive effect it will have on passengers and blaming the union for “exploiting” the opportunity to grab the headlines. Some even stop to comment that they are all in favour of the union’s right to protest, but why do they have to do it for so long, and at Christmas? This is precisely the point: the media outrage at the strike is that the BA employees are not just meekly grumbling, but taking a course of action of sufficient size and duration which might allow them to actually win.

Equally, the Sun reflected a common theme in its comment that “BA chief executive Willie Walsh today slammed union leaders at Unite for a blatant “return to Seventies trade unionism”.” Surely not the same Willie Walsh who slashed a third of the workforce at Aer Lingus? Is this a blatant “return to Noughties casualisation and lay-offs” on his part? The way to respond to the accusations about “union dinosaurs who won’t accept change” is not to say, as Billy Hayes did in the Royal Mail, ‘yes, we are for some modernisation but it should be negotiated’, but outright resistance as voted for by the overwhelming majority of BA workers.

But this militancy is not because they are desperate to screw over the passengers and lose two weeks’ pay, nor is it because their grievances are being exploited by “union barons”. Unfortunately, this morning Derek Simpson on GMTV managed to pour his own thimble of kerosene on the flames of media outrage by telling the interviewer that twelve days of strike action is “probably over the top”. As against this vacillation, we should loudly encourage and champion these workers whose action is a blow against the attacks raining down on all of us.

One thought on “british airways strike: a million christmases ruined?

  1. If there is one thing the press will not stand for it is collective, democratic industrial action.

    They package this up with hand wringing concern for ‘consumers’ and warn of the mythical bad old days of the 1970s.

    Just goes to show that with all the media behind Copenhagen, against the BNP, and so forth, that the only thing that scares the elite nowadays and breaks down the liberal consensus is the power of labour.

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