Unions and management strangling BA strike

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The last of the series of five-day strikes by BA cabin crew came to an end on 9th June. There are reports of further ballots and strikes through the summer. BA workers are not alone. In February Lufthansa pilots went on strike and in early June Air India workers staged a wildcat strike. As in Britain, the companies involved used the courts to try and stop the strikes and in India it seems that a number of workers have been sacked or suspended for their part in the action.

In all of these strikes workers are fighting to defend their pay and conditions against companies that are turning the screws because they are struggling to make profits. The head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has declared that "Labour needs to stop picketing and cooperate".

The crisis of profitability in the airline industry

The airline industry is a volatile and highly competitive industry with wide fluctuations between periods of prosperity and crisis. According to IATA, the industry as a whole has not covered its capital costs over the last two decades and has only generated profits in three of the last ten years, in two of which the profit margin was less than 1% of turnover.

Historically, many states had nationalised carriers and competition was strictly controlled. These arrangements began to end as the post war boom unravelled in the 1970s amidst rising inflation and falling profits. The bourgeoisie's response of allowing the laws of the market a freer play led to the liberalisation of the rules covering flights, the privatisation of various carriers and the emergence of ‘budget' airlines to rival the older companies.

Although there has been a rapid contraction, there are still over 1,000 airlines - a stark contrast to industries such as car manufacture and pharmaceuticals. This has resulted in frequent overcapacity, which has threatened profits and fuelled intense competition. The fluctuations in the price of oil have also had a serious impact.

The industry has responded to this by cutting costs. This is epitomised by the ‘budget' airlines which have increased the hours that planes spend flying and reduced costs by eliminating or charging for ‘extras' and locating their operations away from the main airports. In the US their share of the market increased from under 7% of domestic passengers in 1991 to 25% in 2005.  They also employed fewer workers with worse pay and conditions. The older airlines inevitably followed suit. In the US the workforce was cut by 30%, or 100,000 jobs in five years, and pay was reduced by 7%.

The events of 9/11 exacerbated this by massively reducing the numbers flying and it was not until 2004 that they returned to the pre-9/11 level. The open crisis that began in 2007 saw a collapse in income and profits with a global loss of $16bn in 2008 and an estimated loss of $9.9bn in 2009. The latest forecast is that global profits will recover to $2.5bn this year, but that in Europe there will be a loss of $2.8bn. The result has been further consolidation in the industry, such as the merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines announced in early May, creating the world's largest operator.

British Airways has not escaped any of this, going through repeated mergers from its origins in the 1920s to the current deal with Iberia Airlines. In the 1970s the merger of BEA and BOAC to form BA created the largest network of routes in the world. In the early 1980s over 23,000 workers were made redundant as BA sought to maintain its position as one of the most profitable airlines in the world. It was privatised in 1987 and went through further acquisitions. By the mid-1990s the company was in financial difficulties and attacks on the workers resulted in a number of strikes. Costs and capacity were reduced in order to remain profitable. A decade later Willie Walsh oversaw further restructuring and cost cutting, leading to the present disputes.

Class struggle in the air

The crisis of profitability in the airlines explains the viciousness of the attacks on the workers and the bullying that has characterised BA's tactics during the strike. Workers have been disciplined for holding private conversations, participating in discussions on union member-only forums and even for making jokes. Pressure was put on one union representative to disclose the identities of colleagues posting under pseudonyms on the union's internal messageboard.[1] The withdrawal of travel ‘perks' actually means some staff will be unable to afford to continue working because they have to travel to and from where they are working.

The appearance of tough bosses, such as Walsh, are not the cause of the current confrontation but the consequence of the necessity for this industry to increase the exploitation of workers, to cut numbers, to worsen conditions in order to survive. For the industry to prosper the workers must suffer. There is no common ground between the two.

In this situation, the unions as ever claim to represent the interests of labour against capital. In reality, their role condemns them to making repeated concessions to the bosses while acting as a safety valve for workers' anger.

In the BA dispute, Unite has led the workers through the courts and forced them to jump through all the legal hoops the bourgeoisie can devise. At the same time they have agreed most of the cuts the company wants, in particular by agreeing that new staff will receive worse pay and conditions. While the determination of the workers to resist the loss of travel ‘perks' is understandable, this increasingly looks like a rearguard action.

One of the features of the strike has been the repeated divisions created between the workers. Even before the strike the pilots' union made it clear they would not be involved while a new ‘professional' organisation was set up with a nod and a wink from the bosses. During the strike, divisions between BASSA (representing flight attendants) and Unite have been built up, the one being presented as a throw-back to the militancy of 1970s, the other as more realistic. Most recently it seems that further divisions are emerging between those who have had to return to work and those who have remained on strike, with the result that morale is collapsing.

This threatens the viability of the strike since it risks undermining the foundations of the working class' strength: its unity and solidarity. In the present situation, where the attacks on the working class, whether from the state or from private industry, are taking place in all sectors of the economy and carry such a high risk of provoking the working class to struggle, it is hard to see such tactics as accidental. They are the old strategy of divide and rule, with the bosses and the unions equally responsible.

This does not mean the working class has no options. There is common ground not only within BA, but also across all airlines and beyond, to the many other sectors facing austerity today.  Nor does the working class have to be cowed by the law. In 2005 baggage handlers at Heathrow walked out in solidarity with the Gate Gourmet workers who were under attack from management. No ballots, no false separation between different jobs or employers. Last year the construction workers at oil refineries and in other industries reminded us of the ability of workers to organise their own struggles outside of the suffocating embrace of the unions and in solidarity with other workers. This is the example we have to follow. 

North 12/06/10



[1] See ‘High court ruling scuppers BA strikes' on libcom.org