Workers Hammer No. 210
Victory to the BA strike!
Shut down Heathrow Airport!
MARCH 31 — As we go to press, the second in a series of strikes by cabin crews at British Airways (BA) — their first in 13 years — has concluded. A three-day strike beginning on 20 March, followed by a four-day stoppage a week later, have disrupted BA operations at London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Further strikes are likely to be called for after 14 April.
The BA strikes are among a series of actions by workers in the European airline industry. In Germany, the Lufthansa pilots’ union plans to strike for four days from 13 April while in France a strike by air traffic controllers in February disrupted flights from the two main Paris airports. Meanwhile as the worldwide economic recession bites, workers in Greece, who face savage assaults on their wages, benefits and working conditions, have mobilised for several massive strikes over the past month against government austerity plans. In Britain, the rail union RMT has announced a four-day strike from 6 April, which will be the first national rail stoppage since 1994.
The action by cabin crew members of the Unite union has certainly had an impact on BA, which is reported to have lost £7 million a day during the first strike. At the same time there has been scabbing. BA has been operating a flight schedule from London’s Gatwick and City airports as well as a number of flights from Heathrow, through a combination of flying aircraft leased from other airlines and other strikebreaking operations. Strikers have faced intimidation and victimisation by BA chief executive Willie Walsh, who has stripped them of concessionary fares, which many use in order to travel to work. He has also vindictively docked the equivalent of twelve days’ pay for those rostered for long-haul flights during the walkout. All BA flights must be grounded. Urgently needed is to shut down Heathrow Airport through class solidarity from other Unite members at Heathrow — baggage handlers, check-in staff and mechanics — as well as effective picket lines that no one crosses. As our 19 March leaflet, reprinted below, stressed: “To defeat BA’s scabbing, solidarity strikes by other airport workers, in defiance of the anti-union laws, are necessary.”
* * *
A successful strike by cabin crews at Heathrow Airport is necessary in order to defeat British Airways (BA) boss Willie Walsh’s union-busting. Twelve thousand BA workers, members of the BASSA division of the Unite union, are set to take three days of strike action from 20 March and another four from the 27th. Walsh would like to gut BA of unions altogether, which means all workers have an interest in supporting the BA strike. What’s posed is the very existence of unions at Heathrow Airport, the largest remaining bastion of unionised workers in the country.
The airline industry is reeling from the impact of the current recession: figures for 2009 internationally show the largest decline in passenger traffic since World War II, net losses estimated at $9.4 billion and some 32 airlines going under. With BA making huge losses, last November Walsh imposed major changes on the cabin crew — cutting more than 1100 jobs — which provoked the strike. In a classic union-busting move, BA plans to put newly recruited crew on lower pay and harsher conditions. Contrary to media lies about a pampered workforce, main cabin crew starting pay is currently £11,000 a year, rising after 12 years to £20,000. Make no mistake, if Walsh gets away with this attack on the cabin crews he will take it as a green light to go after all unionised workers at Heathrow, including ground staff, maintenance engineers and baggage handlers. This in turn will have a detrimental effect on airline safety.
Walsh has form when it comes to union-busting: before coming to BA in 2005, he ran Aer Lingus in Ireland where he earned the nickname “Slasher” by cutting 2500 jobs. Walsh would like to turn BA into a long-haul version of notoriously anti-union Ryanair whose chief, Michael O’Leary, egged on BA to “screw the union, lower the costs and lower the fares” (MailOnline, 24 February). Aer Lingus recently announced it will send its cabin crews notices of termination, re-hire them at lower pay and worse conditions and will impose 230 redundancies.
The BA cabin crews have shown impressive resolve in taking on the union-busters. After a December strike ballot that showed 92 per cent in favour of striking was invalidated by a court injunction, a new ballot in February won an overwhelming 81 per cent support. On the other side, Walsh & Co are preparing for war. They have set aside £2 billion to break the strike and are aggressively building up a scab operation that BA claims will enable them to run 60 per cent of flights during the first strike.
To defeat BA’s scabbing, solidarity strikes by other airport workers, in defiance of the anti-union laws, are necessary. BA employs 3000 baggage handlers at Heathrow, and thousands of engineers who service and maintain the aircraft. Without cargo and maintenance, nothing flies. Solid strike action, backed by unionised engineering and ground staff at Heathrow, could bring BA’s worldwide operation to a screeching halt and provide a powerful demonstration of what trade unions actually exist for. BA cabin crew must not be left to fight alone! Picket lines mean don’t cross!
Workers in the airline industry have tremendous potential power — the world economy cannot function without them. Airline workers internationally including the Teamsters union in the US as well as public sector union ver.di in Germany and the Australian Transport Workers Union have pledged to support the BA strikers. Concrete acts of class solidarity across national borders, such as refusing to work scab planes that arrive in other countries, would be of immeasurable help to British workers in their battle against BA. Such internationalism would also stand in powerful contrast to the chauvinist anti-foreigner strikes that have swept Britain’s construction sites in the past year demanding “British jobs for British workers”, a slogan long associated with the fascists. Down with nationalist protectionism! For international working-class solidarity with BA strikers!
In August 2005, BA ground crews showed their immense power by striking against the mass sacking of over 600 Gate Gourmet catering workers. This “unofficial” strike defied the anti-union laws and brought Heathrow to a standstill, snarling up BA operations and costing them over £40 million. However the union leadership under Tony Woodley of the TGWU (now part of Unite) scandalously repudiated the strike as “unlawful” and left the sacked Gate Gourmet workers, who were mainly Asian women, out to dry. Today the Unite leadership is bending over backwards to capitulate to BA, volunteering their own package of cuts and begging Walsh to put his last offer back on the table. They have even agreed that workers will fork out an extra £37 million a year to cover a gaping hole in the BA pension fund!
Bleatings of David Cameron’s Tories aside, the fact that Unite bankrolls the Labour Party doesn’t prevent the Labour government from kicking the union in the teeth. Labour’s transport secretary Lord Adonis has viciously condemned the strikes as “totally unjustified” while Gordon Brown said a strike at BA would be “deplorable”. But only an inveterate Labourite reformist would whine, as Socialist Worker (20 March) did, that Brown “should be attacking BA chief executive Willie Walsh”. Fat chance. While Old Labour governments routinely sided with the bosses against striking workers, New Labour prides itself on its loyalty to the bankers and bosses and its hostility to the unions. New Labour set out to sever the party’s links to the trade unions, which would transform it from a reformist party (ie one with a working-class base but a pro-capitalist programme) into an outright bourgeois party like the US Democratic Party. This process remains incomplete because the party is dependent on union funds, but Labour is moribund as a reformist party.
Behind the condemnation of the strikers by Adonis and Brown stands the state, which has at its disposal a welter of anti-union laws and the courts and cops to enforce them. What the workers have is their numbers, their organisation and the power to halt the industry, hitting the bosses in the bottom line. But what is needed to unleash this power is a political battle against the sell-out Unite leadership.
For the members of the Unite union it must surely rankle that their dues have been funding the Labour Party to the tune of £11 million in the past four years, which amounts to “feeding the hand that bites them”. But the union bureaucracy is tied hand and foot to the capitalist order and would gladly scupper the strike in the interests of re-electing this rotten Labour government. When the cabin crews originally announced a 12-day strike over Christmas, Unite co-leader Derek Simpson stabbed his membership in the back by publicly condemning their strike proposal as “over the top”. The bitter enmity between Unite co-leaders Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley is palpable, but all wings of the bureaucracy are cringingly subservient to the Labour Party. Unite’s “political director” is Charlie Whelan, a former spin doctor for Gordon Brown.
With an election for Unite general secretary in the offing, the supposed “left” candidate is Jerry Hicks, formerly union convenor at Rolls Royce, who outdid Unite bureaucrats Simpson and Woodley in his support for the protectionist strikes for “British jobs for British workers” last year. Hicks stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Socialist Party, which was part of the leadership of the anti-foreigner strikes at Lindsey oil refinery. The Lindsey strike launched a crusade that saw foreign workers removed from a site in Wales and being denied jobs at many other building sites in a racist climate that has been a gift to the fascist BNP.
We told the truth: those strikes are poison to the interests of the multiethnic working class in Britain and workers throughout Europe. We say no vote to any of these traitors in the Unite election and no vote to Labour in the general election. The unions must oppose chauvinist “British workers first” protectionism as well as the “war on terror” — which targets Muslims — as well as all other racist divide-and-rule ploys. What’s needed is to mobilise the multiethnic working class against Gordon Brown’s Labour government in a fight for jobs for all, through a shorter work week with no loss in pay, and to undertake a union organising drive to draw into their ranks all of the working class, including its minority and immigrant components. In the heat of hard class struggle, workers must replace the Labourite cringers atop the unions with a class-struggle leadership as part and parcel of the fight for a multiethnic revolutionary workers party that will fight for a socialist revolution to establish a workers government.
Victory to the BA strikers!