the ‘spring of discontent’ and beyond

by Adam Ford

The UK general election is just five weeks away, and though all major parties are committed to massive cuts in spending to cover the bankers’ debts – the figure of 25% is being bandied about – it’s still not clear whether the reds, blues or even the yellows will hold the balance of power.

British Airways cabin crew and civil servants have recently taken strike action, and a rail stoppage had been planned for Easter. Meanwhile, right wing commentators such as Melanie Phillips – as well as the Conservative Party itself – are claiming that Labour’s reliance on the union’s political levy will stop them imposing the post-election cuts demanded by the ruling class. This is despite Gordon Brown labelling the BA strike “deplorable”.

For all the talk of union leaders being Labour’s ‘new Militant Tendency‘ – a reference to the Labour left grouping of the 1980s – they have acted as willing, well-paid accomplices in Brown’s drive to lower working class living standards. Should a ‘centre-right’ party come to power in Britain, they would surely follow the example of their German and French equivalents, offering their services to the government.

One factor ignored amidst all the furore of the BA dispute is the actual reason that strikers give for their action: the company are seeking to impose £80 million in cuts, and shed thousands of jobs, in preparation for a possible merger with Iberian Airlines. According to a Manchester striker:

“On jobs cut on aircraft, you had four cabin crew and now you have three. On an aircraft where you had eleven, you’ve now got ten and on the jumbo where you had sixteen, you’ve now got fourteen. So already on some aircraft, they are saving 25% in crew savings. On the jumbos and triple 7s they are saving twelve to fifteen percent because of the seniority and the pay scale.“That’s not enough for them. They just want to smash the union. We have concerns over our right and safety practise that just don’t work as well with fewer people. And the customer doesn’t do as well with 25% fewer people to serve them.”

Unite are well aware of BA’s intentions, and have offered any number of concessions in return a seat at future negotiating tables, and the continuing flow of members’ dues. Indeed, many Unite placards bear the slogan “We offered pay cuts to keep BA premium”.

Underscoring the similarity of union and corporate bosses’ interests is the fact that BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh was once the chief negotiator of the Irish Airline Pilots Association. And for their part, European airline unions made sure that pledges of solidarity with BA crew came to practically nothing.

The reformist, nationalist, and hierarchical nature of current trade unionism acts as a straitjacket, restricting workers’ fightback. In the coming period, grassroots, worker-run organisations must be built to combat cuts. These organisations must be independent from party political and trade union control.

The ‘I support the BA Cabin Crew strikes!’ Facebook group is here.

The ‘Support BA Cabin Crew’s Democratic right to strike!’ Facebook page is here.