Rob McArdle, CWU Coventry in personal capacity, and Socialist Alternative (ISA in England & Wales)
The Coronavirus has spelt disaster for the airline industry like nothing ever seen in our lifetime. With flights grounded, hospitality workers furloughed and no cure in sight, capitalism offers no way out of the crisis. Instead, it is the working class who are increasingly expected to take the hit while those at the top continue to increase their wealth. The Tories’ disastrous handling of the pandemic, with mixed signals and conflicting messages has only exacerbated the situation for millions of workers within the hospitality and travel sectors. The lockdown led to a virtual standstill in global aviation travel. And now the bosses are seeking to claw back those losses.
Already a pattern is beginning to emerge as businesses come out of lockdown and the wider economy slowly begins to function again. A growing number of firms are using the cover of Covid-19 to attack any hard-earned gains won over the years by trade unions, and using the pandemic as an excuse to push prices up. The case of British Airways (BA) is a chilling example of such brutal attacks. The airline announced it was looking to shed a quarter of its workforce with around 12,000 jobs to be axed. Shamefully, BA plans on firing and rehiring long standing employees on inferior contracts. The result of this will be cuts to staff pay by up to 40%, along with an inferior terms and conditions deal.
Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite has rightly condemned the move and warned that strike action may take place to defend jobs and conditions. BA has made it clear that the cuts and new contracts would help it compete with low-cost airlines. This would basically amount to a race to the bottom, with workers and customers suffering the consequences while bosses line their own pockets. Long standing crewmembers would have their basic pay frozen permanently and eroded by inflation in the new single fleet proposals, which represent a blatant attack on workers’ gains won in past struggles at BA.
The ‘fire and rehire’ policy comes at a time when BA happily received a £300m bailout by the Bank of England and is clearly using the pandemic to attack working conditions and pay for the very workers who have built the airline over the years. Bosses at BA appear to have been emboldened by it’s proposed deal with pilots for temporary pay cuts and unpaid leave.
Union hating chief executive Willie Walsh gave a clear indication of where he stood by saying: “We are living in a new world environment and the future is going to be very different to the past. The sooner we all embrace that reality, the better for everyone.” The actual reality is that capitalism will always try and make workers pay for their crisis. Those at the top just hope workers will meekly accept worse conditions in order to restore wealth for the ruling class. We’ve seen EasyJet using sickness records as it plans to shed over 700 jobs and there are reports that Icelandair has sacked all their flight attendants and replaced them with pilots.
An unprecedented wave of attacks is being unleashed on workers, the likes of which far outweigh anything we have seen in our lifetime, reflecting the sinking of the economy into a new Great Depression. We urgently need united coordinated action by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in a response to attacks from the likes of BA and EasyJet. We welcome calls by Unite the Union to ballot for strike action in defence of jobs and conditions at BA.
BA appears confident that it can steamroll over Unite members and has simply ignored Unite’s publicity and leverage campaign to date. As the dismissal and re-engagement of workers is due to take effect imminently, it is urgent that Unite acts swiftly to mobilise members from the ground up. The first step is for the union to hold mass meetings of members to discuss how the employer can be resisted. A strategy of action from the Unite leadership worked out in conjunction with the stewards and members will need to address how to rapidly escalate the struggle if, as is likely, BA remains intransigent. Within Unite more widely, a discussion is needed about how the battle can be broadened to other airlines and other airports, at many of which workers are facing the same issues with the crisis in the budget airline industry. A lesson from previous disputes with BA is that it must go wider than one section of workers in order to win.
While Unite is preparing to elect a new General Secretary, candidates for the position should outline their views on how huge employers like BA can be tackled and defeated, as part of the debate about the direction for Unite.
The response by the Labour Party under Keir Starmer has been pitiful and weak. We cannot stand by, dithering while thousands of jobs are thrown on the scrap heap. We need action now. BA should be renationalised, and the whole airline and airport sector taken into public ownership under workers’ control. This would allow us to defend jobs and take steps towards a more environmentally sustainable public transport system, which can drawing on the skills of transport and manufacturing workers in general. Join Socialist Alternative and be part of the fightback!