Why there is Bugger All solidarity for BA strikers

The isolation and marginalisation of the doughty British Airways cabin crew looks like a sign of wider problems ahead for resisting cuts.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

Remember when we were warned that Britain was facing a ‘Spring and Summer of Discontent’ with national rail strikes and an all-out British Airways (BA) dispute bringing the country to a halt and encouraging other trade unions to take industrial action? All that remains of that fantasy scenario is the series of short-term strikes by BA cabin crew. And that brave stand against management cuts appears to be unravelling amid confusion and incompetent leadership in the face of mounting opposition and isolation.

Those assuming – or hoping – that there will be an upsurge in ‘crippling’ mass strike action in response to the coming cuts in public spending, a re-run of the 1978-9 ‘Winter of Discontent’, might think again after looking at what has happened at BA. Whatever the nostalgia-filled TV schedules might suggest, this is not the 1970s or 1980s, the political and industrial context is very different and, despite the weakness of management, it is far more problematic for any group of employees to mount effective resistance to cuts.

In this sense, the BA dispute provides a snapshot of the problems other under-pressure workers are likely to face in fighting back over jobs and pay and working conditions – and the scope that the useless authorities might have for getting away with it.

On one hand, the strikes by the traditionally un-militant BA cabin crew, often caricatured as trolley dollies, show the depth of bitterness among many working people at their treatment by employers in the recession, where they feel they are being forced to pay for a crisis that is not of their making. Staff like the BA cabin crew do not take industrial action lightly. It was only last summer, we might recall, that some BA workers begrudgingly responded to a management request to work for free for a month as an alternative to job cuts. That such moderate people have now been prepared to go out on a limb and strike shows the potential for resistance when people are pushed too far.

Yet the BA dispute also reveals some of the problems they face today. Most significantly, the strikers have been left almost entirely isolated from any active support and marginalised by the media. There is no mass labour movement today that could support the striking cabin crew or give their specific dispute wider meaning. There is passive sympathy but no solidarity action with the strikers, even from within their own union.

We still have trade unions in name, indeed the organisation to which the cabin crew belong, Unite, is a self-styled modern ‘super-union’ formed through mergers of the old declining ones. But these days most unions are empty shells with paper memberships, more about selling insurance and representing individuals at tribunals than organising collective action. These ineffective pseudo-unions are run by self-interested twittering officials such as those at Unite who have called a series of short strikes largely as PR stunts to make an impact in the media, but without the means to run a PR campaign.

On the other side, the BA dispute has shown the forces ranged against those few workers who do try to make a stand today, from the media to the courts. None of this need be insuperable if there was public support for the strikers. Yet in the absence of an effective trade union movement there has been no wider response to the dispute, no active engagement with it.

There is plenty of public sympathy for the strikers (alongside the predictable hostility), but little or no solidarity. Many people have reacted to the BA dispute, not as an issue on which they should take sides, but rather as a matter of passenger inconvenience beyond their control, like a smaller version of that Icelandic volcanic ash cloud. This reflects the dominant cultural attitudes of an age in which we are encouraged to view the world as individual consumers rather than members of a collective and productive working class.

The result of this mismatch is that the BA dispute seems to be descending into a confused and bitter mess. Many even appear unsure exactly what the latest round of strikes is about. The dispute began in response to BA management’s plans to cut hundreds of jobs and attack the remaining cabin crew’s pay and working conditions. Yet the national union leaders now openly admit that they have conceded to most of management’s demands, including 1,700 job cuts, and plead for BA bosses to stop punching them.

Management having largely got its way over the original dispute, almost in spite of its own incompetence, what remains at stake in the current dispute is less clear-cut. The union says it wants the full restoration of travel concessions to staff who joined the first round of strikes, and wants dozens of union officials and militants who have been sacked to be reinstated. Beyond that, there remains the bitterness of the striking cabin crew, but little in the way of focused demands or strategy.

It seems clear that Unite’s national leaders just want to get out of the dispute now with as much of their own negotiating status intact as possible. The joint general secretaries seem incapable even of agreeing with each other, never mind uniting the union behind the cabin crew. There is a growing sense of the strikers being viewed as an inconvenient stage army by the self-interested union bureaucracy who are not treating the dispute as a serious struggle. That attitude was well-illustrated by Unite’s joint chief Derek Simpson providing a running commentary on Twitter during the negotiations with BA boss Willie Walsh – a silly stunt that had less to do with informing his members what was happening (an admirable aim, but then they should hold all talks in public) than with playing a media game. Meanwhile, all sides are pointing the finger at the militant union branch that represents cabin crew, whose own spokesman has been victimised by management, for prolonging the dispute. Little wonder that the numbers of cabin crew taking part in the pickets and protests is dropping off.

Outside of those involved in the immediate dispute, the most striking contrast with the industrial disputes of the past is the lack of public engagement. Much of the media remains obviously hostile to the strikers, yet they have marginalised them more by playing down the dispute rather than splashing headlines about ‘reds’ and ‘wreckers’. Politicians, too, have not sought to politicise the dispute as they would have done in the past; once upon a time an incoming Tory prime minister in search of a cause would have swiftly sought to make capital out of such a strike in a high-profile British corporation.

The wider workforce and public has had no active engagement with the dispute, beyond media vox pops of disgruntled passengers and perhaps a quick honk of a car horn in support of a passing Unite ‘battle bus’. This was summed up in the reaction to an outrageous decision by the courts to outlaw these latest strikes on the flimsiest of pretexts. This legal attack on the unions would have caused widespread outrage and protests in the Seventies or Eighties, protests that sometimes forced the state to change its tune. Yet this time there was barely a ripple of public protest, and it was left to m’luds of the appeal court to overturn the decision and uphold the right to strike.

Yet despite all of this, the one group that still retains its fantastic dreams of a re-run of the past is the rump of the radical left. The British left has clung to the BA dispute in desperation, as if it alone were proof that the class struggle is still alive. Indeed, so desperate are they to try to refight the battles of yesteryear that they have even tried to depict the rather pathetic and ineffectual Walsh as if he were a union-busting boss from the past. This attempt to leach off the BA dispute for their own purposes, for example by invading and disrupting the talks in front of the TV cameras, is more an indulgent show of fantasy leftism than a genuine attempt to come to grips with new problems.

Meanwhile other alleged green radicals who consider themselves more in tune with the times are too busy protesting against airports and flying in general to show any solidarity with the BA cabin crews. After all, who cares if hundreds fewer people have jobs in the ‘evil’ airline industry?

The BA dispute does matter, not only because of the jobs and working conditions that are on the line (and, indeed, have already been signed away), but because of the wider questions it raises about how workers can respond to the capitalist crisis and the coming round of public sector cuts. The isolation of the strikers and the ineffectiveness of their union confirms the biggest thing that the government and employers have in their favour today: the lack of political or industrial pressure from without that is giving them more scope to muddle through the crisis, despite the lack of leadership and nerve at the top of UK plc, as graphically illustrated by BA bosses.

No doubt when the spending cuts start to bite there will be a significant response – the public sector remains by far the most unionised section of the British workforce, with a tradition of taking action and having far more workplace muscle than the trolley dollies. Yet those public sector workers will be facing the same problems on a larger scale – the absence of effective unions (many will be dependent on the same Unite leaders who have so badly let down the cabin staff) and the lack of any wider protest movement to connect with. There will be a lot of anger and a willingness to act. But unless they can find a better way to unite than this, the likelihood is that they are going to be left up in the air.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black asked if standing up for yourself, as the BA cabin crew were, was really ‘deplorable’. He also wrote in defence of the striking trolley dolleys. Rob Lyons praised the strikers at Gate Gourmet. 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.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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