Whilst the overproduction crisis, brought to a head by the Covid lockdown, continues to put pressure on all competing airlines to slash labour costs, British Airways is taking a root and branch approach to ‘negotiating’ with the unions, threatening to sack its entire workforce (over 40,000 workers) with the intention of rehiring some on much worse terms and conditions.
This take-no-prisoners tactic serves notice on the unions that the days of polite negotiations, with some care being taken by bosses to throw an occasional scrap of a concession for negotiators to take back to the membership to help them look like they are earning their keep, are coming to an end.
BA claims that Unite and the GMB have refused to enter talks; but when the pilots’ union Balpa bent over backwards to keep negotiations going, they were met with complete contempt.
Balpa’s general secretary Brian Strutton complained: “Balpa reps have been in consultation with BA over its proposed 1,130 pilot job losses and we’ve been doing that constructively and in good faith.
“Then, on Wednesday evening, a letter from BA added another 125 job losses and also for the first time threatened all 4,300 BA pilots with dismissal and reengagement if we did not reach agreement on changes to terms and conditions.” (Coronavirus: BA undermining job talks by Saleha Riaz, Yahoo news, 7 June 2020)
In an earlier statement, Strutton urged state intervention to support the aviation industry as a whole, correctly noting that otherwise “it is blindingly obvious that individual airlines will plot a path out of this that only suits their shareholders”.
In reality, what is needed is a publicly owned aviation industry, organised on the basis of social need not private profit. Anything short of that simply means that taxpayers’ cash will continue to be siphoned off by the shareholders.
The government itself, fearing a bad press, has complained about airlines like BA milking the government’s furlough job retention scheme whilst simultaneously issuing redundancy notices.
Meanwhile, Heathrow airport has announced that it is offering voluntary redundancy to all its 7,000 in-house employees.
Unite the union is seeking to sugar the pill by boasting about the “generous” redundancy package it has negotiated, but this will be of small comfort to those whose careers have been abruptly stalled with doubtful prospect of workers being able to secure equivalent alternative employment.
Furthermore, just how ‘generous’ settlements will prove to be a little further down the line, when more cuts may be deemed necessary (they cannot be ruled out, says Heathrow), is far from certain.
What is certain however is that a history of unions retreating from challenging all redundancies, ‘voluntary’ or otherwise, has left workers demoralised and weakened for all the battles they now face.