Monday, March 22, 2010

BA strike can and should win, and they deserve your support

It is clear by now that British Airways management, led by the union-busting Willie Walsh, is intent on breaking the union representing its cabin crew. The imposition of cuts that break prior agreements, in which thousands of jobs have already been lost, combined with Walsh's withdrawal of a harsh 'offer' that the union leadership says it is prepared to negotiate over, already suggested this. The board's position remains intransigent, and they have refused requests from the Unite leadership to return to negotiations. In fact, the board chairman believes that Willie Walsh is doing a "great job", so the bosses are for the moment solidly behind this strategy. Reports on Friday showed that management had decided to launched an all-out war on the union, attempting to scrap cooperation with the union in what would amount to de-recognition. So the management's position is clear: they intend, and have always intended, to impose their own deal regardless of the union's position. Labour writer Gregor Gall describes BA's strike plan as a "classic union-busting technique":

For this plan to work, the strike must go ahead and the strike must be defeated. That is why BA has spent inordinate amounts on ways to break it and why it has spent months intimidating cabin crew out of striking.

It might also explain why BA has not sought an injunction again to stop the strike. Months of planning for the showdown would not lead to the outcome it wants if it won an injunction.

BA may even sense it has Unite on the run, given the union's willingness to look more favourably on a deal it rejected last week. Unite may feel on the run after being attacked by not just the Tories but by the party it funds.

In industrial relations jargon, this is a classic "reforming conflict". The employer engages in a set-piece showdown, inflicts a massive defeat on the union, divides the workforce and thus re-orders the power relations between management and union.

This is a gamble by BA's management. However much the union leadership doesn't want this strike - and it's clear that they're worried about any political fall-out for the Labour government, even if this shows no sign of affecting voting intention - staff overwhelmingly support strike action. This is despite repeated court interference that blocked previous strikes. The strike also has extensive international union support. Despite some bullish reports from BA management, which I saw doggedly reproduced as fact by Sky News this weekend, the strike has reduced BA's normal capacity considerably, and management now admit they will lose £7m each day the strike takes place. In order to demoralise workers, BA have gone to some extraordinary lengths. They have reinstated twenty routes, and sent dozens of empty "ghost flights" with no cabin staff or passengers. If this looks rather desperate, I suspect that is because BA management do in fact despair. As Gall points out, BA needs to end this strike in its favour quickly. It can lose tens of millions if the result is a deal that establishes a weaker union, job cuts and reduced pay. But it can't go on for any duration at this rate. However conciliatory the union bosses wish to be, they certainly have the resources to fund a prolonged strike and support workers on the picket lines.

The Tories and their supporters have used the strike to launch a new line of attack on the government, deflecting criticism of the 'Cashcroft' scandal. The basic argument is that even if the Tories are in hock to big business interests, Labour remains just as beholden to the unions. There is even an effort to confect a ridiculous 'money laundering' scandal in which Labour is held to be sending public money to the unions, which is then transferred back to the governing party in the form of political donations. It is drivel. Nick Clegg, further signalling his Orange Book credentials, has argued that there is no difference between the Tories' being in league with millionaires and Labour being funded by the unions. New Labour is deeply embarrassed by the strike, and has gone out of its way to denounce the action and the union from which it still receives significant funds.

What this expresses in electoral terms is the basic class antagonism over how to respond to the recession. With the usual array of euphemisms, the ruling class and its major political representatives advocate reducing working class consumption to restore profitability: cut jobs, cut wages, cut public spending, and drive up productivity with longer and more intense working days. In generalising from the strike in the way that they have, they have demonstrated an acute awareness that this isn't just about BA workers. It is about the future of class relations in this country, and particularly about who will pay for the crisis. If the strikers win, that sets an example and gives confidence to other workers who are faced with similar cuts. If they lose, a different example is set. So, if you're horrified by the prospect of deep public spending cuts, soaring unemployment, pay cuts, and a Tory government, then you really have no choice but to support this strike. It doesn't matter what your views are on trade unions or any other matter. Your interests are at stake here. They're being fought over and defended by those workers who have resisted months of intimidation and bullying by BA management to take this action. You need them to win, and they need your support.