By Anne Mack
British Airways cabin crew are set to strike for three days from Monday 29 January, after 96% of TGWU members voted for industrial action over pay, pensions and sick leave.
On 15 January over a thousand stewards and stewardesses gathered at a Heathrow hotel to hear the ballot result. Jack Dromey, Deputy General Secretary of the TGWU, told the meeting that “defeat was unthinkable” adding, “That would give the management the upper hand for a generation.”
Sickness policy is the key issue in this dispute. Over the last 18 months BA management have imposed a vindictive, small minded and nasty sickness policy. Management say the policy reduces the number of days people take off when they are sick, but the real benefit for management is the power the policy gives to individual bullying managers and the climate of fear and intimidation it helps create.
Cabin crew are concerned about managers telephoning people while off sick to harass them back to work, and the huge scope given to management “discretion” within the procedure. This allows line managers to decide whether or not a period of sickness counts for the purposes of the procedure and possible action against the worker.
US academic studies show that strict Sickness Absence procedures actually cost more to operate in terms of labour time than they save, by forcing people into work when ill. Those studies haven’t even counted the cost in terms of accidents and mistakes made by people who really shouldn’t be at work.
Harassment breeds resistance and that is what is happening now at BA. The resolve of the cabin crew can be gleaned just by looking at a BBC Business News internet chat on the subject. The BBC set up the chat with the usual leading question directed to cabin crew: “do you think the strike is justified?” Nearly all the responses solidly backed the strike. Here is a flavour of them:
• “I feel that a strike would definitely be justified. BA simply are not listening to our concerns... BA refuse to accept that, as crew we are unable to come to work with certain conditions that would be acceptable for some of our co-workers on the ground. The company say that some instances of sickness “could” or “may” (not “should” or “must”) be discounted from the attendance management process. This is, of course at your manager’s discretion, and BA refuse to give a list of even some examples of those instances where this might be the case.”
• “We do not want to strike. We have been forced into this position by the bully-boy tactics of our senior management. We are only protecting our terms and conditions. We are not asking for a pay rise. It has been wrongly printed in some press reports that BA cabin crew earn £22,000 plus. New entrants start on a basic salary of £8,000 which is capped after so many years. New entrants will never achieve the same basic as crew who started pre-1997. By the very nature of the job, there are some medical conditions which prevent us from coming to work… potentially crew could find themselves in a disciplinary process for having a broken limb.”
• “Of course our sickness levels will be higher than a 9-5 office worker. It’s not exactly that we can open up a window in our workplace.”
The cabin crew could be joined in action by BA check in staff, baggage handlers and drivers taking action over their pension. GMB stewards have already voted to reject the company’s pension proposals and TGWU could join them as it looks like ground staff could lose out under the latest proposals.
BA management show no real sign yet of wanting to do a deal. Backing would put them in a weak position for the move to Terminal 5.
Victory to the BA workers!
• Strike announced for 29-31 January. Second three-day strike possible for 5-7February. Third three-day strike possible for 12-14 February.