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A way forward for BA cabin staff

The overwhelming vote for strike action by British Airways cabin staff, scheduled to start next week, has predictably drawn outrage from the media. Accusations range from “madness” (Daily Mail), to “suicidal” (Daily Telegraph) to workers “cheering the destruction of their own livelihoods (The Sun).

What has got the right-wing press so angry is that a well-organised group of workers is determined to protect jobs and decent wages built up over decades against unilateral changes to their contracts imposed by BA management. These cut staff numbers on flights, freeze pay and bring in even worse conditions for new entrants. No wonder that on an 80% turnout, the 13,500 cabin staff voted by more than nine to one for strike action.

But that is not what is supposed to happen at a time of economic recession and when your employer is in serious financial difficulties. Workers are supposed to identify their interests with those of the boss in a bid to keep the company going. As the Torygraph puts it: “This recession has seen many industries and workforces respond with great maturity – pay cuts, extended production breaks, part-time working – to keep companies going and protect jobs. Yet here we have BA cabin crew seemingly prepared to send their company to the wall in defence of their privileges.”

Privileges? What, an average wage of £29,000 and a job? Hardly “privileges” compared to say bankers who are back to massive bonus payouts courtesy of the taxpayer who has funded massive bailouts. Or compared, say, to BA chief executive Willie Walsh, who is on a “basic” salary of £735,000 a year. Let’s hope he can get by on that modest sum without having to scrimp and scrape.

BA lost £401m in the last financial year, and is set to lose even more in the current year. Its losses are thought to be around £1,000 per minute. BA announced earlier in the day that its pension fund deficit had increased by 75% in the past three years to £3.7bn.

The airline is in a financial crisis partly because of the recession and partly as a result of low-cost airlines taking its business. In other words, it’s a classic case of capitalist over-supply and ruthless competition that’s the cause of BA’s plight and a few workers taking a pay cut or working harder won’t affect that situation one jot.

Management is talking about a “fight to the finish” with cabin staff, who are in the Unite union and there is a sense of provocation in how the contract changes were introduced without agreement. Whether the union leaders are up to more than using the strike vote as a bargaining chip to reach a rotten compromise is another question.

BA is a prime example of the bankruptcy of the capitalist business model. The airline industry in particular is unsustainable, economically as well as ecologically. Now it has to drastically reduce capacity at the expense of the workforce in order to survive before it can find a way to “return to growth” and inflict further damage on the environment.

Britain’s transport infrastructure cannot be left in the hands of profit-obsessed shareholders and executives. BA workers should make a leap from defensive trade union action to reach out to other sections of workers hit by the crisis. They should seek to unite with those in other airlines and transport industries and draw up plans for the democratic ownership and control of the global travel infrastructure.

If they did that, BA workers would kick-start a movement that would be the basis for creating a sustainable, integrated transport system rather than one where competition prevails at the expense of jobs, passengers and the environment.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
15 December 2009

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