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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. 29/03/2010

Don't let BA cabin crew fight alone
As New Labour ministers lined up with the right-wing press over the weekend to condemn the strike by British Airways cabin crew, you had to ask yourself what had the national leaders of the Unite trade union done to prepare for a confrontation that the company had clearly planned for some time. The answer is not very much. 22/03/2010

New Labour lines up with BA
There’s nothing like a looming national strike to bring out the true class credentials of the political parties, together with the baying hound-dogs of the media. The democratically-agreed industrial action by 12,000 BA’s cabin crew workers in defence of their jobs, pay and conditions is certainly having this effect. 15/03/2010

Time to defy anti-union laws

The High Court ruling against the planned British Airways cabin crew strike is not simply the outcome of a clearly partisan decision by Mr Justice McCombe. It is also the result of more than two decades of fearful inaction on the part of the trade union leaders.

Strike action did not become illegal only with yesterday’s ruling that a ballot of BA cabin crew was invalid because of failure to notify members about 13 spoiled ballot papers in an 81% vote in favour of action. For the abolition of the right to strike you have to go back to a series of anti-union laws passed by the 1979-1997 Tory government.

The law that was cited by the judge to block 20 days of planned strike action in defence of jobs and against victimisation was actually passed in 1992. And the union leaders have done nothing to challenge this or any other aspect of the anti-union legislation ever since. This is especially the case in relation to laws banning solidarity action as well as the requirement to hold a postal ballot.

As a result, strikes have often been ineffective and isolated with the union bureaucracy running scared of massive compensation claims by the employers. As it is, the Unite union could still face a £250,000 bill for strikes against BA in March as a result of yesterday’s judgement.

We mustn’t forget the legacy of the last 13 years of New Labour government either. Tony Blair once boasted that the laws restricting strike action were the toughest in Europe. So they were and that’s how they remained until Brown left Downing Street last week. And yet union leaders, especially Unite’s, continued to send the cheques through even though campaigns for the repeal of Tory anti-union laws fell on deaf ears.

There were, naturally, lots of fine words from the joint general secretaries of Unite, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson outside the High Court. They said: "This judgment is an absolute disgrace and will rank as a landmark attack on free trade unionism and the right to take industrial action. Its implication is that it is now all but impossible to take legally protected strike action against any employer who wishes to seek an injunction on even the most trivial grounds."

Leaving aside the concessions Unite has offered BA in terms of reducing its wages bill and accepting a two-tier workforce, this statement would mean something more if it were a call to action to ignore a law that clearly denies cabin crew their human rights. Instead, Unite is relying on the Court of Appeal to find in their favour.

Even if the appeal is won, the employers will be back time and time again to frustrate workers (this is the second time BA alone has won in the courts). The technicalities of the postal ballot were largely ignored for a long period. But the recession has brought the employers out of the woodwork. Just before Christmas, the RMT rail union was prevented from going ahead with strikes over jobs.

After the BA ruling, Bob Crow, the RMT general secretary, said: "We warned after the [Easter] judgment that it bent the anti-trade union laws even further in favour of the employers and so it has proved. There is no doubt that this new Con-Dem government wants to effectively outlaw strikes in publicly used services before they swing the axe at our hospitals, schools and fire stations, and the courts are the battering ram to make that happen."

The trade unions were built in the face of laws that banned combinations, sent workers to prison, deported them to Australia and victimised activists. Protecting the funds of the unions such as they were was of secondary concern. Crow is right about what’s to come as the massive cuts programme bites. Workers cannot resist with one hand tied behind their backs by laws that prevent effective action. It’s time for union leaders to put up or shut up, to defy the anti-union laws or go meekly to the slaughter.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
18 May 2010

Your Say

Peter says:

Too right. The employers are using these laws more and more. Last week the NUJ had to call off a strike against Johnston Press, after the company got an injunction from the High Court, on a technicality of course, arguing that it does not employ any journalists—this despite the group`s claims in its annual report , in company bulletins and other publications that it employs 1,900 journalists. NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: “Johnston Press management’s claim that it employs no journalists would be laughable, did it not have such serious implications for industrial relations in the UK. It’s clearly part of an emerging trend amongst employers to derail democratically agreed industrial action by skillfully exploiting the anti-trade union laws....”

And Unite has been injuncted on many occasions in the last 2 years, invariably leading to the union calling the proposed action off, or at least postponing it while another ballot is carried out. And these are not the only laws that unions have to contend with. EU laws (applicable in the UK), as interpreted by the EU Court of Justice, even threaten their very existence. Employers now can seek an injunction to halt any planned industrial action on the basis that it might violate the employer’s rights under EU law. The granting of interim injunctions is dependent only on the employer demonstrating that there is a “serious issue” to be tried. With the possibility of unlimited damages being imposed on the union a situation now exists where trade unions that pursue redress can face liquidation.

In Feb 2008 BALPA (representing airline pilots), following an overwhelming ballot majority for strike action, was threatened with an injunction by British Airways. The union sought a ruling in the courts as to the legality of the action, but BA counter-claimed seeking unlimited damages. The union, faced with the likelihood that the legal proceedings could take 18 months to resolve, was forced to call off the action for fear of being fined after the event.

With a new government in the UK even more hostile to trade unions than the last New Labour one, the outlook for trade unions to continue to represent their members in the old way, is bleak indeed. Not for over 100 years have the rights of unions been so threatened. In 1902, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants was fined £23,000 when some of its members in South Wales staged a walk-out. The response of the unions to this challenge--that meant unions could be fined every time there was a strike--was to build the Labour Party which forced the Liberal Government of the day to repeal the laws after the election of 1906. Today, 100 years on, that party, now called New Labour, is part of the conspiracy against the unions. Far from repealing the Tory laws of 1992 and 1987, New labour strengthened them, while gratefully accepting money from the Unite union and others.

Ray says:

There is an historical logic to the present legally shackled unions. The union leaders who refused to support the 1984-85, year-long miners' strike 'in action', did so with weasel words that the NUM didn't carry authority of a ballot when making their national strike. How hollow is that 'retreat always retreat, keep the powder dry' non-strategy, before successive more restrictive legal impositions. Equally the NUM had their finances threatened and finally sequested under duress of Thatcher and her new laws and courts, but the NUM leadership found ways and means to collect and hide financial support to alleviate hardship and distress. Why do union leaders purposely avoid the lessons of those times - that is what workers have to ask today.

The legality of the capitalist state to both outlaw and financially tie-up unions' fundamental right to strike CANNOT be defended in parliament or the courts - in Britain, Europe or even the United Nations. The Unite ploy of isolating the BASSA cabin crew as if they were singular 'trade question' (against BA in the typical manner of a Willie Walsh) has been shown for what it is - playing into the enemies hands. The Woodley's and Simpson's are feigning crocodile tears and fawning outrage whilst they adhere to the strictures of the systemic dismantling of effective union membership. If those leaders wish to be slaves or slaughtered - we can nothing about that. One who is convinced to commit suicide will do it. But we say leave the workers organisations intact, cede positions to those men and women who will be prepared to not only fight - but to actually fight to win.