With elections looming on the horizon, the strike by British Airways (BA) cabin crew over a reduction of the number of cabin crew on long haul flights, a two-year pay freeze from 2010 as well as new contracts with lower pay for fresh recruits has gained additional attention. The strike has been condemned by all parties including the currently governing Labour Party. And yet, the right to strike is a fundamental right. BA management did inform Unite, the union which organizes BA cabin crew members, but it refused to negotiate these changes. BA simply imposed them on its workforce last November. Going on strike – a decision which is never taken lightly considering the loss of income for workers – is workers’ only and often last possible option to respond to such a heavy-handed management strategy. One may disagree on whether it was wise of Unite to plan the initial strike for a period of 12 days over Christmas. Nevertheless, the court injunction preventing this strike last December severely undermined the right to strike. BA cabin crew members deserve our support, and be it simply to ensure that the right to strike is not further weakened.
But there are also other reasons, why wider support is desirable. While banks have been bailed out through massive government spending during the global financial crisis, it is now workers, who have to pay the bill, be it in the form of unemployment, a reduction in welfare services, lower wage increases or restructuring as implemented by BA. A successful strike at BA would not only secure the working conditions of BA cabin crew, but it would also help others to defend their working conditions against similar cut-backs in other companies and industries.
Importantly, however, BA is not restructuring to ensure super-profits. On the contrary, it has suffered significant losses of £342m for the nine months to the end of December 2009. The company feels that restructuring is essential to remain a competitive and viable business. BA is involved in an increasingly cut-throat competition with low-cost airlines, which offer cheaper tickets not only as a result of lower service levels, but also because they pay their workforce less. And this is a problem, a successful strike at BA will not be able to solve. It makes clear that a trade union such as Unite, organized at the national level and strongly represented within BA, is perhaps not the right organizational structure to affect positively the overall airline industry. From a trade union point of view, the ultimate goal has to be to improve the working and salary conditions of all cabin crews across the whole sector. It has been the primary objective of trade unions to take wages and working conditions out of capitalist competition. National trade unions will not be able to achieve this in a transnational economy of this type. Ultimately, what is required is a trade union organization, which negotiates the wages and working conditions of all employees across all airline companies. Within the international shipping industry, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) negotiates a standard collective agreement, which covers crews on so-called Flag of Convenience vessels in order to ensure minimum wage and working conditions across the whole sector. This may be an example, which could provide a way forward in the airline industry too.
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ldzab
22 March, 2010