In mid-January, over 10,000 British Airways cabin workers in the Transport and General Workers Union division, BASSA, voted overwhelmingly and enthusiastically for a strike involving pay, conditions and general discontent. The unfolding of events since then at BA is a real, practical demonstration of the anti-working class nature of the trade unions. Over the years the unions at BA, working hand in glove with management, have implemented massive attacks on the wages and conditions of the workers. And when, in January, these workers had enough and responded to these attacks by wanting to fight back, the unions, working from their deliberately divisive structures, sabotaged that very struggle at the same time as delivering up another crap deal. The unions at BA have undermined any effective fight back, in the first place by isolating the cabin crew from other workers, even from other cabin crew in different unions.
It’s not just the leadership that’s the problem. The T&G head Tony Woodley - member of the ‘awkward squad’, ‘militant leftie’, ‘tough negotiator’ - showed his colours in the carve up of Peugeot workers from 2000 onwards. The problem exists in the whole union structure, particularly its base, in this case the rank and file BASSA committee of convenors and stewards.
The cabin crew strike was called off by the union, and the pay deal ‘negotiated’ gives an upper pay ceiling of £18,600, which still means a pay reduction of £8,000 in relation to the pre-1997 ceiling (‘negotiated’ away by the unions) of £26,600, “the best deal that could be achieved” according to the T&GWU (The Independent, 3/3/07). Not only was this pay cut maintained with the same workers doing the same job for two different pay rates, but the union has also asked for more wage bands, thus imposing more divisions on the workers. As well as this, the union ‘deal’ over conditions has meant the latter will deteriorate and management-bullying tactics over sickness and attendance have been given the green light. The cabin workers are furious. Woodley first of all postponed, then cancelled the address he was to make at a union meeting to defend the ‘deal’ because of the anger and resentment felt against the union. BASSA had to shut down its website because of the level of anger directed against it. A 9-man rank and file BASSA committee had accepted the deal and the two members who voted against it have since resigned. The workers’ anger has been focussed on the rank and file committee and more of them are reportedly resigning. Working within the union structure, even, and especially at the base of the union, rank and file committees will be forced, sooner or later, to sell out the workers and toe the union line. Putting trust or confidence in such union committees means that from the beginning the workers are fighting with two hands tied behind their backs. As far as the cabin crews are concerned any attempt to remedy the situation and fight back against these attacks must begin with their self-organisation and the election of their own delegates in order to confront the inevitable union sabotage. Threats by some BASSA workers to join another union will simply put them back on the union merry-go-round and back in the same position, having learned nothing.
At BA the T&G has 20,000 in its union, Amicus has 6200, the GMB 5000 and Balpa 2750. Amicus has 1500 cabin crew members, and check-in workers are split between different unions. The last ‘deal’ organised by the T&G and the GMB in 2004 was a three-year pay and condition cut, one of the sources of the growing anger of workers earlier this year. The carve up and division of workers by the unions is again reflected over the cuts in the pension scheme, with Amicus and Balpa recommending it, the GMB rejecting, and the T&G “consulting”.
At the present time, the role of the unions, as part of the state’s attack, is to keep workers divided and confused, and prevent any effective fight back. This is clearly shown in their role at BA. Beyond BA, there are about a hundred thousand workers in and around Heathrow, many divided up by the same unions and all of them suffering similar attacks to those at BA. Beyond the divisions, sell-outs, confusion and lies sown by the unions, the workers need to start from their own mass meetings and their own organisation in a similar vein to the autonomous action by the baggage handlers last year in support of Gate Gourmet workers. The current victory of the unions and management over the workers at BA will only be temporary because issues are unresolved, more attacks are needed and the workers will respond. What’s important is they learn the lessons of their own struggle. Baboon, 28/2/7