BA strike: against the race to the bottom

by Gregor Gall
Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Hertfordshire

The BA dispute in shaping up to be the key union battle of 2010, being on a par with strikes in the engineering construction industry and Royal Mail last year in terms of their significance for the wider labour movement. This is maybe a little odd in that a relatively small number of workers are involved compared to those in the engineering construction industry and Royal Mail. This is a dispute about accommodating to or resisting the ‘race to the bottom’ under the neo-liberalism.

That said the dispute with BA as a employer and organisation has a significance way beyond the number of staff employed – the profile of the dispute is based on BA still being seen as the national flag carrier despite privatisation and the union being able to benefit from exerting leverage because travel cannot be physically offshored and strike action has an immediate and demonstrable impact upon the business’ operations.

When BA was created in 1974 in an act of nationalisation, collective bargaining was enshrined in the legislation to do so. This and the immediate and demonstrable impact of strikes upon the business’ operations have meant a well-unionised and strong workforce has been able to leverage up their terms and conditions of employment. This achievement has become all the more apparent as under deregulation, new players have entered the market and begun as non-union operations with much lower pay and conditions.

Yet despite this it is evident that Unite has been wrong footed by BA. First, lengthy negotiations have allowed BA to prepare to undermine the strike. Second, the withdrawal of BA’s offer on Thursday 18 March made the union unwillingly have to act on its announced strike pledge. This was revealed by the willingness of Unite to stand down the strikes if the offer was re-tabled even though Unite was initially not willing to recommend it to its members.

So Unite has punched well below its weight here, even though BA’s claims about the extent of the striking breaking service it has been able to run have been shown (by independent plane spotters) to be exaggerated.

But this cannot detract from the inability and/or unwillingness of Unite to do more to put increased pressure on BA in order to make the running in restarting the negotiations and on terms that Unite wants.

While Unite would have taken brickbats in the media for calling a 10 or 12 day strike as initially planned, the 3 day then 4 day strike has not been up to the task of facing down a company that clearly wants to break to union and which is very cash rich despite recent losses.

No union can afford to ignore issues of media coverage and levels of public support. Coverage from many media has not been favourable – nothing new there. Yet it is has been more balanced, if not necessarily favourable, in the broadsheets and BBC given the hysteria around the dispute because we are in the run up to a general election. Indeed, it has been sufficiently positive that BA has been worried by it and has sought to use its own means to put its case across through youtube.

But this dispute like so many others comes down to numbers – the number of strikers, the number of strike breakers, the number of flights flown and the number of passengers flown. The dispute will essentially be won or lost within BA, not in the court of public opinion, media newsrooms or the House of Commons. The issue of Teamsters’ support was not much more than window dressing.

However, there are two caveats to that. If we recall the Gate Gourmet dispute in 2005, unofficial solidarity industrial action – which was authorised by Tony Woodley as T&G general secretary through a nod and a wink – allowed one group of workers to support another. In that case, it was BA workers to Gate Gourmet. This time round it could be Gate Gourmet and/or baggage handlers to cabin crew. This would put much greater pressure on BA – whether in terms of just the threat to do so or doing so for a day. In these circumstances, creative thinking must be used to get around the anti-union laws.

The role for the whole Unite union and wider labour movement is to put lead in the pencil of the strikers. Most obviously, Unite could levy a £1 solidarity payment from each of its 1.4m members. Solidarity donations from other unions could also be raised. This would say to BA that the strikers can afford to sit out a long strike so negating the fact that BA is cash rich and is prepared to lose money now in search of the sacred cow – the unilateral right to vary terms and conditions without union opposition.

The role of the Labour government has been interesting to say the least. On the one hand, it has shown no support for Unite and has gone further by condemning the strikes (where the union rather than management is blamed). Yet, on the other hand, it cannot intervene more actively and effectively in the dispute that it has done – no matter which side it comes down on – because the doctrine of neo-liberalism means that state intervention is spurned. Consequently, it has made no calls for the dispute to go to arbitration, much less forced both sides by political pressure or emergency legislation to do so.

And because ‘new’ Labour is a neo-liberal project, it has been unable to counter the political onslaught from the Tories on the issue. Long before the strike, it had given up the ability and right to say in a social democratic way, these workers have the right to defend their livelihoods and more power to their elbows in resisting the race to the bottom (even if again it was unprepared to act to support them in deeds rather than just words).