“We will not allow Unite to ruin this company,” said BA‘s CEO, Willie Walsh, yesterday, after 81% of cabin staff voted for strike action on a 79% turnout. This ballot, re-run following BA’s successful quashing of a ballot run at the end of the year, confirms the huge opposition among BA’s employees to the changes that BA is trying to impose on them.
Walsh is trying to position this dispute in the industrial relations language of the 1970s, as a battle between a reasonable company and a bullying union hell-bent on destruction. But this is not the 1970s and BA’s employees are not militant miners or British Leyland workers, led by aggressive class-warrior opponents of capitalism. BA cabin stewards are a broad spectrum of working-class and middle-class men and women working in a service industry in the 21st century. They did not start this dispute by demanding extortionate pay rises; they are seeking, entirely reasonably, to protect their jobs and incomes from changes being forced upon them. If there is an aggressor in this dispute, it is Walsh.
His positioning of this as a dispute with Unite, the union to which the vast majority of BA’s cabin crew belong, is wrong. The days when a strong union leader could call a strike and intimidate workers into joining it were ended by the Thatcher union reforms and the crushing of the NUM in the early 1980s. In BA’s case, cabin crew took part in a secret ballot, and they voted against the company in their thousands. This is not a dispute between BA and Unite, but between BA and its employees, and for him to regard the cabin crew as pawns of their union is to disregard the legitimacy of their concerns. This is a disastrous industrial relations strategy.
Ultimately, Walsh will have to reach a compromise and the day-to-day operation of BA will get back to normal. But he has irreversibly damaged his relations with his own employees, who will not quickly forgive nor forget his railroading of them. Companies flourish or fail through their employees and a service industry even more so. BA will be having bumpy flights for some time to come.