Wednesday, December 16, 2009
British Airways strikers posted by Richard SeymourIt's not a fluke, but nor is it necessarily an omen. The overwhelming vote by BA workers (92%) for 12 days of strike action over Christmas, with a turnout (80%) way above the average, could be another false dawn. But it could also be the opening shot of resistance by the British working class to the more or less naked class war being waged by capital in the context of the recession. The effects of the recession have been blunted somewhat by successive government interventions, and workers have as often responded to catastrophe with dazed acceptance as with resistance: remember Woolworths? And when big struggles have been launched, as per the recent postal workers' strike, union leaders have acted quickly to curb the action - presumably eager to spare Labour embarrassment in view of any upcoming election. And even where there have been some successes, for example at Tower Hamlets college, these have in no way been of a sufficient scale to alter the overall picture of resignation in the face of mass unemployment. A recent BBC analysis almost boasted about how little struggle there had been despite predictions of a 'winter of discontent'. Yet, here we have a centrepiece strike in a core service industry during one of its busiest periods and the workers don't appear to be in a mood to back down. If you want to get a feel of the mood of workers, see this video from Socialist Worker:
British Airways workers have been through a lot. The cabin crew now threatening to take strike action had already accepted severe conditions back in June, to save the company from what they were assured would be ruin. Thousands took leave without pay, worked part-time or worked unpaid. There were 2,500 job cuts, capacity reductions and a pay deal with pilots to reduce costs. As a result, the company accumulated a war chest of £2bn. No one can say that the workers are not open to negotiation. And the union leadership has gone to considerable lengths to avoid a strike, offering cost-cutting agreements that would save BA £140m. However, evidently in a confident mood, BA boss Willie Walsh took the June agreements as his cue to prepare the most appalling jobs massacre, without negotiation with the unions. It is an attempt to break the union far more than it is an attempt to save money. So, the BA workers' reaction to this vote is no more surprising than is Willie Walsh's attempt to bully the workers through litigation.
Unfortunately, and equally unsurprising in its way, Derek Simpson of Unite has apparently said that he considers the strike "over the top". This is not just wholly wrong - workers have already taken as much as they can from this management. It is the worst possible stance for a union leader to take even for negotiating purposes. It is very likely to be the case, as Gregor Gall writes today, that the union is banking on the government intervening to secure a deal. The quid pro quo would be that if a Labour government can tame bully boy managers a little bit, then union leaders will do their best to keep militancy in check and support Labour's campaign. So, Simpson's comment makes sense in light of that strategy. Yet it has already helped the right-wing press to undermine the strike before it even begins. If I were a BA worker, I would take this as a warning not to depend on the leadership or on negotiations. Management is out to kill, and the union leaders look as if they're worried about how much blood they'll have to mop up.