What’s been going on?!
If you’ve been a worker at Heathrow over the last year, chances are, you’ve either been through a redundancy process, seen your pay and conditions attacked, lost all your overtime, been on furlough, or all of the above. It has been a unique experience. Previous aviation crises, like the fallout from the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the financial crisis of 2008, while severe, are dwarfed by the sheer scale of the current disruption. It has been draining, both emotionally and financially. As is the case with situations like this, we have seen the best and the worst of people. We tend to show our true colours when faced with this level of adversity. We’ve witnessed workmates throw others under the bus to save their own jobs, bullying, harassment and snivelling to management of the highest order. But, many people have shown a lot of courage and decency. Workers have been striking to protect their colleagues’ pay and conditions, volunteering for redundancy to help save their friends’ jobs (even though we shouldn’t need to), challenging management and insisting that scarce work and overtime be dished out fairly. Our issues are obviously not confined to Heathrow. They are replicated throughout the country and all over the globe. Workers have been resisting in various ways with varying degrees of success. How are things panning out? And what can we learn?
March 2021 saw an escalation of the long running dispute at Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL). HAL’s “fire and rehire” plans, announced last summer, have been subject to ongoing strike action from fire fighters, security and engineers since December 2020.
The strikes until now, (9 in total) have been no more than one or two days in length. In an apparent attempt to up the ante, Unite, the union representing HAL workers, threatened a month of targeted actions in April. 41 actions spread over 23 days. Unite had adjusted their tactics in February and March, opting for short 4-hour strikes. This was intended to limit the loss of pay for staff and to make it harder for HAL to get scabs in to cover the work. HAL reacted by insisting that if a worker was on strike at any point in the shift, they would lose pay for the entire shift.
It looks as though the companies stance had an effect, as Unite changed tack again for the proposed April strikes, opting for full shift walkouts. Sections within Fire, Campus Security and Engineering would each alternate strike actions throughout April. Reasoning seemed to be that, if the company wasn’t going to pay staff the whole shift, they might as well strike for the whole shift. Why a total workforce walk out wasn’t preferable or possible isn’t clear. On 1st April, the planned strikes were cancelled. We were told that a pay offer negotiated between HAL and Unite would be presented to the members to vote on. Ballots have now been sent out, and Unite is recommending that the workforce accepts the deal.
The pay offer has not been hailed as a major victory in the customary way that most of these compromise deals are. This may be because the details of the proposal don’t address the major causes of the dispute. The “fire and rehire” plans left many staff facing 20% pay cuts, the removal of incremental pay increases for long service and abatement clauses (clauses that make redundancy more expensive for the company) from their contracts, along with other reductions in benefits. The deal leaves these issues unresolved and instead offers conditional pay rises of 2.5% in 2022 and 2023. The pay rises are dependent on annual passenger numbers being above 60 million. While this was certainly achievable before the pandemic (passenger numbers have been above 60 million for the last two decades), the continuing uncertainty concerning air travel – variants, vaccine passports, red list restrictions etc.- now makes this passenger level difficult to achieve. Last year, Heathrow saw just 22.1 million passengers.
The linking of pay increases to passenger numbers also sets an unhealthy precedent for aviation workers. Our living costs don’t go down if our company is doing badly, do they?! And being employed in a polluting industry, that is detrimental to the physical and environmental health of our community, is enough of a contradiction, without directly linking our standard of living to passenger numbers. It could erect further barriers to the necessary transition away from ever increasing passenger numbers and airport expansions. Leaving that aside, if the required passenger levels are achieved and staff get the total 5% by 2023, a substantial portion of the workforce will still be on inferior contracts and be 15% poorer without adjusting for inflation. If the passenger numbers aren’t achieved no one gets anything. There appears to be some dissatisfaction with the offer, but other workers we’ve spoken to seem convinced this is the best deal available. Whatever the outcome, the fact will be that a company has once again managed to successfully downgrade contracts at one of the most densely unionised workplaces in the country.
How have they managed to do this? Is it just a simple matter of workers not having the bargaining power to sufficiently fightback during a pandemic? The fall in demand for air travel is a major problem, but not the whole story. The same patterns have played out at numerous other UK workplaces. Workers at British Gas, ESS catering and cleaning staff at the MoD, porters at NHS trusts, Go North West bus drivers and many others, have all faced attacks on contracts, by companies with flimsy or non-existent economic justifications. If working people at unionised and profitable companies are still unable to resist assaults on their contracts, obviously something deeper is happening.
The issues internal to the disputes are very similar. Strike ballots take too long, causing anger to dissipate and giving companies time to prepare for any eventual actions. In the long period leading up to the moment when workers can finally legally strike, we need to be applying pressure in whatever ways possible. These efforts can often be constrained by unions obsessed with presenting themselves as “reasonable” during negotiations. Unless workers have forums in which to discuss these issues, outside the unions, we’ll keep repeating this mistake. Picket lines are too small and isolated to be the effective campaign tools they are intended to be. At many workplaces (British Gas, Go North West, HAL, British Airways etc.) sizeable chunks of the workforce voted to accept the companies terms earlier in the disputes, leaving the remaining workforce out on the proverbial limb. Disputes remain largely isolated within their companies. Solidarity between companies or even departments is rare. For example, NHS workers are mobilising in opposition to the insulting 1% pay offer in England and Wales and 4% in Scotland they received in March. But already, Unison has unilaterally recommended the offer of 4% to workers in Scotland. This undermines their own demands for a £2000 uplift, stabs unions still fighting for 15% in the back, and scuppers the chances of a unified cross-border response.
Companies have been able to cover the work of strikers and this hasn’t been effectively challenged throughout the recent disputes. Go North West are openly running a scab bus service that is undermining the ongoing strike action in Manchester. There is footage of workers attempting to disrupt the scab service. Unfortunately, the low number of workers involved makes it difficult, especially when, either scabs or hired goons come out of the garage and start assaulting the picketers. And while Unite‘s main efforts are confined to asking Mayor of Manchester, Andy “King of the North” Burnham, to denounce the company and lobby parliament to get “fire and rehire” banned, escalation of efforts to stop the scab bus service has been neglected. On May 3rd, a well attended May Day demonstration was organised by Manchester Trades Council and marched to the bus garage on the Queen’s Road in Cheetham’s Hill. Hopefully efforts like this are applying pressure on company. The lead banner at the demo and the speeches at the rally emphasised the importance of outlawing “fire and rehire.” A great deal of noise is being made about banning “fire and rehire,” without enough discussion about whether this will be sufficient or even effective. On the 26th April, Unite launched a national campaign to end “fire and rehire.”
Ongoing strikes at software company Goodlord, Go North West and Fife Council were coordinated and demonstrations held at various locations. The campaign has started with the usual photo ops with MP’s and the union top brass. Some demonstrations were targeted at company subsidiaries. The online launch material contained quotes from MP’s denouncing “fire and rehire” in parliament. One such quote was from the Right Honourable protector of the working class, Jacob Rees-Mogg. This law is unlikely to be a crushing defeat for the rich and powerful if MP’s of this variety are willing to pass it.
Even if a law is passed, unless workers have the unity and therefore the power, to resist the companies will obviously find a way round these legal measures. We can see an example with aviation workers at WISAG in Germany, who were recently the victims of a “fire and rehire” scheme. In order to keep their jobs at Frankfurt Airport, they were made to apply for their jobs at “another company,” which just so happened to be a subsidiary of WISAG.
So what are our options in a stressful time when things move quickly and often behind closed doors? Well, we have to be prepared by studying how these things go, and be ready to capitalise on opportunities that will make us stronger. During the HAL dispute, at least two obvious opportunities for cross company collaboration at Heathrow arose, that a more confident and organised working class may have capitalised on. Unite members at British Airways Cargo in their own “fire and rehire” dispute and Passport Control staff with the PCS union, battling an unworkable roster change, both voted to strike at the same time as HAL workers had their strike mandate running. British Airways and Passport Control staff both reached agreement with their employers before, and separately from, the HAL workers. It’s not easy to build the sense of support and solidarity necessary to combine these kinds of dispute, but it has happened before, and can happen again. And in Neuquen, Argentina it’s happening right now.
The British Airways Cargo strike, over the Christmas period 2020, was probably the most effective recent action at Heathrow. That action, which took place in relatively favourable conditions for the workforce (Cargo division still profitable, widespread port disruptions, 90% plus staff walk out, busy Christmas period etc.), still resulted in a deal that didn’t safeguard the workforce’s conditions in their entirety. The outcome was considerably better than if they’d of done nothing, but still ground was given, because the wider BA workforce had already done departmental deals, isolating the action. Divisions amongst the Cargo workers to do with qualitatively different contracts and work roles between newer and older staff, as it often does on the airport, limited the likelihood of escalating the dispute.
Parliament won’t save us. Businesses will find a way to drive down our conditions for as long as we fail to unite in opposition against them, directly in our workplaces and communities. The time, money and resources wasted lobbying politicians and courting a media that doesn’t care, could be better deployed in direct action, to forcibly block the companies scab operations and stage pickets, blockades and demonstrations that hit the companies where it hurts.
London Bus Driver Disputes – Hounslow Heath bus drivers to the rescue!
The recent London bus strikes are another example of these familiar dynamics playing out. Bus drivers at three subsidiaries (London United, London Sovereign and Quality Line) of the same parent company (RATP) began challenging their company’s derisive pay offers (as low as 0.5%) at the same time. Ballots were called and strikes began in February. In late March, Unite suspended strikes at London Sovereign and Quality Line garages. The revised pay offers were meagre increases of 0.25%. The offers were at first rejected by some garages, but after further talk and suspended strikes, the pay offers were reluctantly accepted by relatively narrow margins at the two subsidiaries.
Unite’s decision to bargain with the subsidiaries separately had left the drivers at London United striking alone, as their company was refusing to improve the 0.5% offer. The London United action was given a welcome boost when the original five garages, including Hounslow and Park Royal, were joined by Hounslow Heath and Stamford Brook garages, after they voted to strike in early April. On 25 April, the scheduled London United strikes were suspended, while details of a new offer are finalised.
Another 4,000 London bus drivers are currently considering strike action over Metroline’s “remote sign-on” plans. “Remote sign-on” is a blatant attempt to casualise the bus drivers. Drivers won’t be expected to report to a garage at the start of their shift, but instead Metroline will require drivers to report to particular stops at designated times. The Go North West bus drivers are facing the same changes and drivers everywhere will eventually be affected.
Heathrow Parking Charges
The GMB has started a campaign against increases to parking charges at Heathrow. On top of the removal of free local bus services late last year, staff can now expect increases of 135% for the pleasure of parking at work, as HAL looks to pass more of the cost of the pandemic onto low paid workers. The GMB have started a petition for free staff parking at Heathrow.
British Gas blowout – more thoughts on the media
After 3 months of strike action, the British Gas dispute ended in defeat on 14th April with hundreds of engineers being sacked. Last summer, workers there were informed that they would lose their jobs if they failed to accept detrimental changes to their contracts. Engineers with the GMB voted twice to reject the new terms. At the same time, British Gas office staff with Unison, under recommendation from their union, voted to accept the changes. This decision hampered workers’ efforts from the outset. A full company walkout would obviously have been preferable.
A recent Tribune article, written by an Engineer sacked for not accepting the new terms, is well worth a read. The writer points to a GMB survey in mid-February to determine whether members were happy to suspend strikes for 4 days to allow time for talks – a blatant and common delay tactic from management. Members voted to suspend the strikes, while “fire and rehire” was still on the table. The writer justifiably believes this was a big mistake. Unions continually suspend and delay industrial action citing concerns about negative media coverage. Although he voted against the suspension, he relayed worries about the company using a rejection of talks to whip up bad media coverage against the strikers. He believed Covid restrictions to be the most significant barrier to escalating the dispute. This, he says, prevented the engineers from holding mass demonstrations and gaining the required media coverage needed to pressure the company.
Taking for granted for a moment that increased media coverage is a useful primary goal when contemplating tactics, we could ask if the mass demonstrations were really made impossible by the Covid restrictions? Especially when the British Gas engineers had a lot of latent support from those that were aware of the situation – a profitable company blatantly taking advantage of the crisis to increase profit. Recent Black Lives Matter protests, Kill the Bill demos and electricians actions against deskilling, have shown that actions can be carried out relatively safely (until the police get involved) and gain a fair amount of public support. The lack of coverage, we are told, should be a “mark of shame” for the media. The coverage they did receive was littered with inaccuracies and falsehoods. The worries highlighted by the engineer surrounding the suspension survey and his belief in the pivotal nature of media coverage in the escalation of the dispute, expresses the dominant understanding of struggles within much of today’s labour movement. If we keep expecting favours from the media, we are going to keep barking up the wrong tree. The scarce and inaccurate coverage of workers issues is hardwired into the corporate media’s operating model, not a “mark of shame.”
Unsurprisingly, media corporations show a great deal of class solidarity when their fellow corporations are under the spotlight. As with all of society’s institutions the explanation for this is complex, but an obvious and primary reason is that media owners hire editors that reflect their values, causing the principles they hold dear to filter down through the organisation. Unless we develop a systemic understanding of the media industry, as being diametrically opposed to our interests, our tactics will continue to be deficient. We waste time courting the powerful, when we should be speaking to each other. Using our precious time to foster relationships of mutual aid and support. From there we can develop tactics that target the company’s finances and operations, not just their reputations. The engineer lucidly articulates this, when making sense of the defeat and trying to learn lessons for the future, he states that:
“If I had one piece of advice to give to striking workers, it would be to recognise your colleagues……If someone goes above and beyond like speaking at a rally or going on the TV, let them know they did a good job; if your shop steward has been having a hellish time of it, make it known that you appreciate what they’re putting in; and if a colleague is keeping quiet, try to get them to open up. A little goes a long way.”
Manchester Airports Group
Unite have made an agreement for staff at Manchester Airport Group (MAG) that they are hailing as a benchmark deal for the aviation industry. Under the agreement, workers who are not required for work will receive 80% of their full pay (which is applicable regardless of any government support through the Job Retention Scheme). Workers who are in work for up to 85% of their normal hours will receive 90% of their full pay and those who are working for 85% and above of their normal hours will receive 100% of their pay. A fair share arrangement has also been established to ensure that work is shared out on an equitable footing and an oversight committee has been installed to ensure that the agreement is effectively implemented.
Unite members accepted the agreement with an 85% yes vote in favour and members of Prospect and Unison have also accepted the agreement.
MAG staff have already paid a huge price during the pandemic. 465 directly employed staff have been made redundant, plus another 1500 contractors at the airports (800 from Swissport and 300 from Menzies) and a 10% pay cut across the board since the beginning of the crisis. This agreement continues on with those pay cuts. Surely these workers have given enough already?
Non-union airport workers in Missoula, Montana, USA staged a walkout against the poverty wages at their workplace. $9.65! That is £6.93 at the current exchange rate! The company, Unifi, claim they had no problem getting management scabs to cover their work. The ground handling and ramp workers were isolated and have now been fired. They showed a lot of dignity and courage walking off the job. It is possible to carry out actions without the union, but if there was a plan or strategy with this walkout, something went very wrong with it. The strikers have since got new jobs at Alaska Airlines on over $12 and through protest have drawn the attention of the Missoula County Commissioner who has written a letter of “dismay” to Unifi.
New York and New Jersey, USA
Airport workers with the SEIU union at New York and New Jersey airports are striking and demonstrating for a decent healthcare package and no givebacks. (Whatever givebacks are?!)
The WISAG workers fired from their jobs for refusing to accept the inferior contracts continue their fight for justice. They are staging noisy demonstrations at airports and state buildings most weeks. We have sent a message of solidarity and support. We stated that we would like to help them more practically and that we hoped to speak with them to see how we might help them further.
Optimism over Despair
We regularly hear our friends, family and workmates saying “nothing can be done,” “there isn’t any money” and “the countries bankrupt.” Even the partial belief in these assertions, serve to seriously temper our ideas of what is possible. Unions’ calls for government support sometimes play into these misconceptions. During the pandemic, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) were asking for loans to the aviation companies their members work at, for the air passenger duty to be suspended, and stated that workers are “pleading” for support from government This encourages the perspective that most aviation companies haven’t already got the finance to see them through the crisis (which they have!), that an increase in passenger numbers is desirable at this time (which it probably isn’t!) and that workers, at one of the world’s most important transport hubs and one of Europe’s most active cargo ports, are powerless (which we are not!).
We need organisations in which we can productively channel our anger, not institutions through which we can express our collective inferiority. Even in times of crisis, such as these, we have the collective strength to demand a great deal more than loans and tax cuts for the companies we work at. Our societies have more than enough physical and intellectual wealth to provide for our needs, but the organising of our daily lives through the profit motive, restricts our ability to take control of our lives and the industries that sustain them. We can try to move unions in a more radical and militant direction, but we can’t rely on them to do our fighting for us and we need to be prepared to act without them, when necessary.
Many of us don’t trust the unions, not just because of our terrible and biased media, but often because of genuine experiences of betrayal and abandonment in the past. Most of us are smart enough to not trust the government or the corporate executives they largely serve. Daily, the gap between the rich and the rest of us becomes more obscene, our governments become less accountable, as individuals we become more isolated, monitored and subject to surveillance. In our communities we become more cut off from each other and our environment. Trust in one another will be key if we are going to be able to start pushing back against these trends. We need to start again. Build up the material and emotional support, needed for us to flourish as individuals. With the strength to make our own demands and eventually control our own daily lives. Let’s look forward to a future with no more pleading with the government for handouts, no more top-down union drives, no more divide and rule and lots more community and freedom.