Strikes at BA and LU: We can’t win our demands in isolation

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On the 17th August the Unite union representing airport workers reached an agreement with the British airport operator, BAA, for a measly 2% increase on basic pay and allowances with the added guaranteed lump sum of £500. Let’s be clear what this manoeuvre means: the same union, UNITE, which ‘represents’ both airport workers and cabin crew staff who have been engaged in a year long running dispute have delivered … for the bosses of BAA and British Airways.

UNITE claimed “this offer is double what BAA had originally offered with no strings attached”.  In reality, the deal comes with 500 redundancies attached and a one year pay freeze which calculated on top of the pay freeze imposed on  BAA ground staff last year means a pay-cut! “Terry Morgan, of BAA, added: ‘We believe that the unions are going to recommend acceptance of our offer to their membership’ … BAA said it was ‘very, very confident’ that potential disruption to passengers had now been avoided”. (Telegraph 17/810).
A strike at BAA could have had the potential to shut the airports simply on the basis of safety grounds.
Unifying this struggle with that of the British Airways cabin crew could have broken the deadlock and isolation of the latter. Previous struggles in the airline industry have demonstrated the immense power workers have when they support each others’ struggles – for example, in 2005 baggage handlers at Heathrow went on strike to support the unofficial action of those workers who had been sacked by the airport catering company, Gate Gourmet. As we reported at the time (see WR288), this struggle was eventually contained by the unions by dividing up the two groups. By keeping the BAA and British Airways struggles separated, the union machine has achieved the same result in these latest struggles.
The British Airways cabin crew dispute is now pretty well isolated. At the end of July, BA cabin crew workers threw out ‘a final offer’ from Willy Walsh and BA management. They are now waiting for UNITE to organise a fresh ballot for more strike action.  
UNITE officials are using the low turnout (45%) of workers voting on BA’s latest offer to justify not calling further action. This is part of the prevarication which is aimed at wearing down and demoralising cabin crew who, right from the start of this dispute, showed incredible combativity in spite of their inexperience in struggle. Even at this point there have been calls on UNITE’s website for a new strike ballot. Once again, the real problem is the isolation of this struggle, an isolation maintained and instigated by UNITE itself. In response to this, the union points to the so-called ‘anti-union’ legislation which sees management seeking court injunctions for each stage of the strikes. This mechanism ensured BA cabin crew were prevented from striking over the Christmas period. In reality, unions use these injunctions to protect sequestration of union money but more importantly, to control and isolate strikes.
 In other disputes, there has been an overwhelming strike vote by workers at London Underground, in a response to management’s attempt to make £16 million worth of savings. The reality of this ‘rationalisation’ will be to close ticket offices with the loss of some 800 jobs. This is a massive attack and will see some 10,000 workers striking on Monday 6th September. This will include both drivers and station staff in a series of one-day strikes.
200 Alston Metro tube maintenance workers have also voted for strike action over a management pay offer. This strike is to begin on 5th September with further 24 hour strikes to be announced in October and November.
Drivers at Stagecoach in Liverpool have also rejected a 2% offer from management and are looking for parity with Arriva drivers which will bring them up to £10 per hour. Importantly, in this dispute the 6 ‘official’ pickets were joined by 140 drivers looking to take an active participation in their own struggle. This is, of course, strictly illegal. But no doubt we will see unions moving swiftly to ensure that the letter of the law is enforced.
There are many more expressions of fighting to protect pay, jobs and conditions. Today, these are the main examples of struggle. With capitalism carrying out a programme of massive attacks, particularly on public sector workers, we can expect many more strikes to take place. The important question is how do we struggle? Firstly, we have to recognise that all effective methods of struggle are illegal. We have to reject the union mantra ‘we can’t do this because it’s illegal’. As we have seen in the BA strike, following management/union procedures means only one thing - certain defeat by isolation. This is clear in the BA strike, where cabin crew have been subjected to a war of attrition!  Secondly, it’s important that we don’t fight alone. If the BAA workers and the BA cabin crew had linked up their struggles, this would have presented a powerful movement that could have forced the bosses to back down. Understanding this will be particularly important in the London Underground strikes and we can expect the tactic of divide and rule to be applied to separate drivers and station staff. The fact that they are in different unions will make this easier for management and unions to work this trick.
The old maxim of the workers’ movement, ‘united we stand, divided we fall!’ applies today as it did yesterday.  Melmoth, 04.09.10 


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