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The stakes couldn't be higher

The stakes are being raised in the confrontation between BA management and cabin crew members of Unite who are fighting to protect jobs and conditions. Coming a quarter of a century after the end of the biggest confrontation between unions and the state when the miners fought pit closures in a struggle lasting a year, the company’s reaction to the strike means it is more than just another industrial dispute.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh has overt and covert backing from the state in the form of New Labour and all the major political parties as well as every single major media outlet that endlessly highlight the predicament of stranded passengers. Newspapers like the Daily Star and the Evening Standard spend large sums to dish up the dirt on union leaders like Derek Simpson and Bob Crow.

The cabin crew strike is, therefore, a crucial test case. From the employer’s and government’s point of view, any resurgent trade unionism must be nipped in the bud. That is why there is similar hostility to the plan by members of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union to stage the first national strike for 16 years to block the loss of 1,500 jobs.

A few days ago, the BBC hosted a discussion on its “Moral Maze” programme in which it was said that the right to strike should not exist. This was supported by former Tory MP Michael Portillo. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stated a similar view pontificating that “we cannot tolerate large-scale industrial disputes in this country, particularly at this time as the economy comes out of recession.”

While BA claims that the strike is costing the company £7 million per day, financial analysts in the City have estimated a daily loss of £15 to £20 million. Calling on BA to negotiate a “sensible” agreement, Unite estimates that seven days of strike will cost the company over £100m. When a company is prepared to sustain losses on this scale, Unite is right to say that BA “has embarked on an ambitious and expensive attempt to destroy trade unionism among its cabin crew”. But Unite leaders are failing to draw the key lessons from history and are pussy-footing around. We have been here before.

At “Digging the Seam”, a three-day conference held at the University of Leeds last week, participants reflected on the consequences and legacy of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. The outcome of that year-long confrontation was that members of one of Britain’s most powerful unions, the National Union of Mineworkers were compelled to return to work. Thousands of its members were arrested and thousands more sustained injuries due to police violence. Within a decade the NUM was reduced to a shadow of its former self by the destruction of the coal industry. Pit village communities continue to suffer devastation.

Just as then, the struggle being conducted by BA cabin crew and rail workers is more than just an industrial dispute. It is over rights to have a job and provide a service to their fellow human beings under terms which are not dictated by a management motivated solely by shareholder returns.

The history of a single union taking on a ruthless employer under conditions of economic and political crisis is highly relevant in today’s situation. Even more now than then, no single group of trade unionists in today’s globalised world and with a far smaller trade union movement, can take on and defeat a state-backed company.

These confrontations come as Alistair Darling admits that New Labour is preparing public spending cuts which will be "deeper and tougher" than Margaret Thatcher's in the 1980s. Treasury cuts will add up to a staggering 25% of departmental budgets and will last until 2017, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It warns that Britain faces "two parliaments of pain”. The employers and the state have launched a war on several fronts. And Unite is funding New Labour’s attempt at re-election!

An increasing danger is that with the present bunch of union leaders patently incapable of learning from history and organising a co-ordinated resistance that defies laws banning solidarity strikes, groups of workers will be picked off one by one. Firm, decisive, bold leadership is key to the outcome of these struggles. At this point in time, its absence in the trade union and working class movement is there for all to see.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
29 March 2010

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