In defence of the striking trolley dollies

It’s a fitting end to the Year of Surreal Industrial Relations that it has taken BA cabin crew to stand up for workers.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

The start of the year saw unemployment pass the two million mark in the UK for the first time since 1997. By the end of 2009, the number of jobless looks set to have risen by a further 500,000. Dire by any measure.

Yet despite the job losses, pay freezes and pay cuts, people’s response to the recession has been remarkably mute. Resistance of any form has been notable precisely because it was unusual. What once would have been mundane fare for an industrial relations correspondent has become major news. Whether it was a factory occupation by the Visteon car workers in Dagenham, the construction workers’ impromptu walkouts at the Lindsey oil refinery, or the posties’ display of militancy in the autumn, such actions have not been the norm. Rather they have stood out against a background of resignation and passivity.

It is perhaps a fitting end to The Year of Surreal Industrial Relations that the strongest display of militancy yet has come from a rather unexpected source: the 13,500 strong British Airways (BA) cabin crew. That’s right, the duty-free-peddling women (and men), famous for their make-up, immaculate hair and unfaltering smiles, have proven themselves surprisingly pugnacious when it comes to dealing with an aggressive ‘cost-cutting’, sack-happy management. They have not only decided to go on strike; they are doing so for a headline-writing 12 days over Christmas and New Year – a move which will potentially affect 900,000 passengers, and cost BA something in the region of £180million.

The cabin crew’s strike action is even more surprising given that in June this year 800 BA employees decided to work for free for a month, 1,400 volunteered to work part-time, and a further 4,000 took a month’s unpaid leave (1), a decision that, at the time, was seen as the most significant indication yet of employees’ recognition of recession-era necessity. This was the new realism; this was how it will be from now on (2). ‘We’re all in this together’, as shadow chancellor George Osborne told the Tory party conference in September. Except it clearly isn’t that straightforward. Just how flimsy this supposedly new relationship between worker and employer actually was, and is, now stands revealed. One month there’s a surprising willingness to take the pain, the next, there isn’t – even within the same company. The employee-employer relationship remains ill-defined, uncertain, and in this case, volatile.

One can easily see why the cabin crew did decide to strike. As part of BA’s attempt to cope with losses of £400million last year, and £290million up to September of this year, in November the BA management, headed by chief executive Willie Walsh, decided to reduce long-haul cabin crew from 15 to 14, implement a two-year pay freeze, and propose to cut over 1,000 jobs come the new year. Judging by the prominence given to staff cuts by Unite, the union leading the action, it’s the job losses that are the real source of cabin crew anger. This is the main reason why they are striking. As a sign of people standing up for themselves, no matter how well-coiffured, their decision to strike is to be defended.

However, to say there’s been little in the way of public sympathy for the actions of the cabin crew would be an understatement. Much like the London Tube strike earlier this year, the reaction from the hundreds of thousands of passengers likely to be affected has been largely hostile. Only 10 times more so, given that it’s not just a case of getting to work late, but of not getting home for Christmas. As far as many affected are concerned, this is atrocious customer service.

In fact, the public discussion of the planned cabin crew strike has been framed almost entirely in terms of the individual consumer. It seems to be the only perspective available. The BBC News website doesn’t offer an analysis of the conflicting interests at stake; it offers advice on ‘how else to get around this Christmas’. The Times doesn’t address the concerns of businessmen; it addresses the worries of the disgruntled customer – ‘Don’t rush to buy another flight, just wait and see’, a column urges. Throughout the coverage and public discussion, the only relationship one can seemingly have with the strike is that of a consumer to a disrupted service. Little wonder that the only variation to the reaction is in the degree of annoyance at having plans disrupted. ‘The union leaders hope, naively, that passengers will blame the company and not the striking workers’, states The Times editorial: ‘It is not likely that anyone deprived of a Christmas holiday is going to make such a fine-grained distinction.’ (3)

A fine-grained distinction? As distinctions go, the difference between the interests of a company management determined to cut costs by sacking people and the interests of those facing the sack is about as ‘fine-grained’ a distinction as that between cat and mouse. This blithe dismissal of the difference between the interests of management and workers shows just how depoliticised the context is in which contemporary industrial disputes are interpreted. There is no siding with the interests of cabin crew members; and there’s little in the way of explicit support for management.

Accompanying the isolated perspective of the consumer is the idea of a cast-iron economic logic. Given the huge losses BA is running, the strike is futile, runs the argument. If anything, they will simply destroy the company, and, with it, the jobs they are meant to be protecting. ‘This is more than a foolish and mean-spirited strike’, declaimed one newspaper editorial, ‘it is an act of self-sabotage’ (4). Over at the Wall Street Journal, Iain Martin blogged his agreement: ‘This vote by the union collapses trust and will hurt the company on which the union’s members depend for a living. It’s not only maddening, it’s obviously self-defeating.’ (5) As The Times puts it, ‘the selfishly narrow motivation of the workforce’ has ignored the bigger economic picture.

Yes, how dare they stand up for themselves and their fellow trolley dollies, especially when they are on ‘such good money’ as the Sun puts it. And what ‘good money’ it is, too. Just take a look. The starting salary for BA cabin crew is about £16,000 (plus bonuses and allowances) (6), and the average cabin crew salary is, as is frequently quoted, currently £29,000 (including bonuses and allowances). It sounds okay, and is more than the £24,000 national average. But when you bear in mind that those bonuses and allowances which bump up the salary are in the process of being capped, and that the much higher, pre-1997 pay-scale is also distorting the £29,000 figure, it stops seeming like ‘such good money’.

But then the argument is not really about remuneration. It’s about the people walking the aisles knowing their place, and accepting their lot. Just as those columnists on double the salary of the cabin crew they’re condemning know theirs, and just as the exorbitantly remunerated management knows its place. ‘Good money’ here is always code for ‘good enough for them’. After all what might be ‘good’ enough for mere cabin crew would certainly not be deemed good enough for BA executives.

This elite disdain for people’s rational desire to better themselves works its way into a view of BA’s financial problems. As the explanation runs, BA was just too expensive to keep up with its budget-flying rivals. It was a cut above though; it offered free gin and tonics, and it still bore the Union Jack, a badge of its special position in the aviation industry. But it’s been forced to compete, to lower itself, and, with that, standards have slipped: ‘My deepest affliction must be my loyalty to British Airways’, writes a columnist in The Times: ‘I have always been weirdly, insanely, masochistically attached to our national carrier… I don’t care whose fault it is anymore… I’ve had enough of the embarrassment.’ (7) Still too pricey, but no longer offering the superior service for its superior clientele, BA has struggled.

The implication is clear. BA has been ruined by its cheap and nasty competitors, and by association, the cheap and nasty people who fly with them. The solution to BA’s problems wades out of the economic mire in all its austere, pleb-loathing grandeur: fewer flights that cost more. As the Guardian’s head of business Dan Roberts writes, the fact that the current levels of flight ‘are unsustainable from an environmental perspective’ just adds ‘to the argument for turning the clock back to the days of fewer flights’. ‘None of this will be popular’, he continues, ‘especially now almost all of society has tasted the thrill of affordable foreign travel, but if we really want our overcrowded airlines to become a decent way to travel (from a social, environmental and passenger perspective) we need to put our money where our mouth is as consumers’ (8).

But is the reaction to the prospect of job losses and deteriorating pay and conditions really so ‘maddening’ and ‘selfishly narrow’? Is the desire to travel as cheaply as possible really so crazy? Underpinning the perspectives of those who would answer ‘yes’ is the idea that we as a people should know our place, should accept our lot. In every sense, it is impoverishing.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons praised the strikers at Gate Gourmet. Tim Black spent the day with strikers at the Lindsey oil refinery and saw nothing wrong with London Tube workers demanding more. Patrick Hayes reported on the Visteon factory occupation. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.

(1) 800 BA workers set to work unpaid, BBC News, 25 June 2009

(2) BA’s work-for-free bid hails era of short days and long breaks, Observer, 21 June 2009

(3) The Eclipse Stakes, The Times (London), 15 December 2009

(4) The Eclipse Stakes, The Times (London), 15 December 2009

(5) British Airways staff cancel my Chritmas, Wall Street Journal blog, 14 December 2009

(6) I want your job – Air Cabin Crew, Independent, 12 July 2007

(7) I don’t care about BA strikes, The Times (London), 15 December 2009

(8) All is not lost at British Airways, Guardian blog, 15 D2cember 2009

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Topics Politics UK

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