CABIN CREW BELONGING TO THE UNITE UNION have entered a bitter battle with flagship carrier, BA, now part of the International Airline Group (IAG). By 9th March Unite members had taken 26 days of strike action since early January in a fight to dramatically improve what are currently poverty pay rates. Further strikes look likely over Easter, pending a reballot.
The workers form the backbone of BA’s ‘mixed fleet’, created in the wake of a 2010 dispute. Former BA and now IAG boss, Willie Walsh, saw it as a major step towards the decisive defeat of trade unionism at BA.
Walsh has made no secret of his ruthless determination to drive down labour costs to the levels of ‘no frills’ carriers such as EasyJet and Ryanair. The ‘mixed fleet’ crews, who make up 15% of all BA cabin staff, have been recruited since 2010 on substantially worse pay and conditions than their co-workers in the corporation’s Eurofleet and Worldwide operations.
Anger about basic pay, which in 2016 amounted to less than £12,200 a year (plus £3 an hour while airborne), had been simmering for some time before Unite launched a major recruitment and organising drive that has yielded some 300 new members, boosting union density to nearly 75%. Unite suspended a planned strike around Christmas in response to an offer from BA that effectively amounted to six pence an hour, which members overwhelmingly rejected.
In contrast to the often dour image of pickets huddled around a brazier, the youthful mixed fleet workforce have made this a veritable ‘all singing, all dancing’ dispute with music blaring and giant Unite flags waving at Heathrow and other UK airports. While BA has shelled out hundreds of thousands in an effort to break the strike, hiring crews from the likes of Thomas Cook and Thomsons to cover for strikers, its IAG parent reported gross profits of £2bn last year - the corporation has deep pockets. Determined as the strikers have been, the loss of wages is taking its toll and the workers at Heathrow have established a food bank at the Bedfont Football Club.
Industrial solidarity from other BA workers may well prove essential, but in the meantime financial support is welcome. Please make cheques payable to: ‘Unite the Union’, marked ‘Mixed Fleet Hardship Fund’, c/o Ron Todd House, 33-37 Moreland House, London EC1V 8BB.
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP