Saturday, May 22, 2010

Right to work conference ends in occupation

I am hearing that today's 'Right to Work' conference was very large and very successful, though I don't know how it compares with Manchester. Obviously a major theme of the day was the BA strike, and workers from British Airways were present to explain their grievances and form links with other groups of workers represented at the conference. I also hear that about 200 people, angered by the treatment of BA workers, departed for the ACAS headquarters to stage a protest. As I wasn't there and haven't spoken at length to anyone who was, I don't feel confident in talking about the protest in any detail. What I can assert with reasonable confidence is that the protest did not disrupt negotiations, as is alleged by practically every media outlet I have seen, which predictably avoids the substantive issues behind the dispute and the protest. This is because the BA management is not negotiating, and the union leadership is neither in a position to compel them to negotiate, nor is it inclined to. It is effectively drafting terms of surrender.

The record is clear. Willie Walsh has consistently reneged on agreements with the union. He has withdrawn even the most cut-throat 'offers' even when the union leaders declared that they were prepared to negotiate over them. He and his subordinates have spent months bullying staff. He has sought vexatious court injunctions against the union to prevent perfectly legal and democratic strike action. He has sacked leading trade unionists on trumped up allegations - proving that their aim is to provoke the cabin crew. He has tried to conceal the impact of strike action by sending out empty "ghost flights" to make it appear as if the company can operate efficiently without the majority of its workforce. He is out to bust the union, in a company where 97% of workers are unionised. It is an attack on the work force, an attempt to fundamentally and permanently transform the balance of power between staff and their bosses in the name of "management's right to manage".

The cabin crew staff, for their part, have been patient and tolerant. They have accepted voluntary redundancies and wages cuts. BA workers have even worked for free when asked to do so. That is a staggering act of generosity toward their employers, an investment in the future of the company, which has been rewarded with outright malice and contempt. It is all the more astonishing when you consider that cabin crew salaries start at £12k a year, which is just on the poverty threshold. They have sought agreement at every stage and have been consistently rebuffed, and their good faith betrayed. They are at the end of their tether, forced to strike action by an aggressive management intent on smashing the union.

The Unite leadership, which is denouncing the protesters as "lunatics" (Woodley), has been pretty useless in the dispute. Derek Simpson has consistently undermined the strike, describing it in the media as "over the top". In a Labour gathering, he described Bassa reps as "clowns" and said that BA workers were "deluded" if they thought they could win. Bassa has twice voted overwhelmingly for strike action. They have found little support from the leadership of Unite, which has at times seemed more interested in protecting Labour's interests than those of the workers they represent. They have publicly endorsed agreements that the workers have not agreed to. They have dragged their feet over setting strike dates. No wonder Willie Walsh this week urged "Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson to assert their authority" over Bassa. He blames a 'hardcore' within Bassa for "wagging the Unite dog", forcing the Unite leadership into taking a position against - *sigh* - 'modernisation', which they would otherwise be reluctant to take. There is an increasingly tense relationship between Bassa and the Unite union to which they are affiliated as a result of this. I only qualify the term "useless" with the adjective "pretty" because both Woodley and Simpson have been forced to defend workers' right to strike against some pretty egregious court decisions, and because even lip service is better than no service at all.

The position of those meeting in ACAS today couldn't have been clearer. We have bosses who don't want to negotiate, who want to break the union, and a Unite leadership that has little time for the people it is supposed to be representing. We have talks going nowhere fast, and a workforce that has been treated so abysmally, provoked so hatefully, that it is straining at the leash to fulfil its two overwhelming strike mandates, and really stick it to the people who have shown them such utter disdain. There is going to be a strike, and the talks were never going to stop this. Only the courts, with the backing of the full armoury of the law and the state, could have done that. The outcome of this strike will not be determined by talks between Unite leaders and BA bosses. Consequently, the allegation being put about on Sky, the BBC, the Daily Mail and elsewhere that negotiations were scuppered by dozens of protesters surrounding Willie Walsh and advising him, rather volubly, that they support the cabin crew, is absurd. If the protests have had any impact on the talks, I suspect, it will have been to reinforce the emerging sense of solidarity between the Unite leadership and the BA bosses. Tony Woodley hurriedly departed the ACAS building after Willie Walsh's hasty exit, complaining that Walsh had "understandably" felt "harangued" by the protesters - a case of political Stockholm syndrome if ever there was one.

The issue now is how people can build solidarity with the strike that is going to happen, how funds can be raised, and how other groups of workers can be drawn into supporting those at the sharp end of a ruling class offensive. Because if the BA workers win, then I confidently expect that the unconscionable Mr Walsh will lose his job. And if the most outright reactionary union-buster in the country is at long last defeated, having picked a fight with the wrong group of workers, that will give a little boost to every other group of workers who are having to defend jobs, pay and conditions against management attacks. Which would be nice, wouldn't you say?

ps: One last thing. Note that Walsh describes the Bassa strikers as "reactionaries" stuck in the 1970s. One of my arguments about "progressive" conservatism concerns precisely this ability of capital to appropriate the language of progress on behalf of such agendas as war, pollution and privatization. This tendency has led the author Dan Hind to mock the Hayekians, Friedmanites and corporate propagandists as the 'Party of Modernity'. Since neoliberalism - rather, capitalism tout court - constantly attacks and subverts 'traditions' in the process of procuring a favourable environment for further accumulation, its opponents are invariably tied to a 'status quo' that makes them reactionary. So, if BA staff are understandably unhappy about attempts to break negotiated agreements, cut thousands more jobs, shred pay, and remove their rights in disciplinary procedures, this nevertheless makes them enemies of "progress".