Mick Duncan talks to BA workers involved in the dispute at Heathrow and Gatwick airports and to the GMB to get the story behind the "swipe cards dispute".
Workers at Heathrow and Gatwick scored a dramatic, if only partial, victory in the battle to stop the introduction of new work patterns for British Airways staff. An effective truce followed an unofficial walk-out by thousands of mainly women workers in defiance of the anti-union laws. It is a truce because British Airways bosses and the unions have really only got an agreement to talk: a working party to discuss possible changes to hours and shifts. That will report by 17 September.
BA management are set on introducing a more "flexible"-for them-system of work patterns. The threat was that they could use the data generated under the new system to stand people down at quiet times and call them up again when it gets busier. At present, workers can plan their lives around their shifts as these are decided about three months in advance. The issue was not about whether you clock on electronically or sign in on paper. It was about "life-work balance" as it is called in the Sunday supplements.
The new system is known as integrated Airport Resource Management (iARM). The BBC quoted an Amicus official as saying, "ATR (swipe cards) is a side issue. The fear is that under iARM they will take the data from the ATR to restructure people' rotas, and introduce annualised hours and split shifts-for example, getting people to come in for two hours, going home for two hours, then coming back in again. At the moment, staff are able to swap shifts and plan family commitments, such as childcare and holidays. Annualised hours would mean staff having to work at short notice-for example, if there were delays-and having to bid for leave".
BA employs 2,500 passenger services staff and another 10,000 back-up staff. The 2,500 passenger service (check-in, etc.) workers are most affected.
The worst parts from the raw proposal for iARM-standing down and banning shift swaps-have already been negotiated away. For a workforce where about 30-40% have young children, this is no small beer. The workers also won the removal of strings from their pay deal and will receive a 3% rise, backdated to January. If the war has not yet been won, this important battle has been.
Ed Blissett, senior organiser for the GMB, commented: "We are very pleased with the result. It meets the aspirations of our members."
The walk out took place despite the anti-trade union laws and despite the fact that this workforce had not been on strike before and had just faced huge redundancies. The redundancies seem to have made staff angry and determined to stop management attempts at further attacks.
A lack of unity between the major unions involved seems to be responsible for the piecemeal opposition mounted to the redundancies. The same problem seemed to rear its ugly head again during the walkout and in the negotiations-with the T&GWU seeming to adopt a much softer line than the GMB and seeking to get that accepted behind the back of the GMB. There is a lot of bad blood and disunity within the officials of the unions that needs draining if the gains won at BA are to be consolidated.
It is a huge credit to those workers that they managed to strike so effectively and to stick together so well to achieve what they have.
The unofficial action brought echos of the 1970s-wildcat action and press hysteria. So far there have not been recriminations against workers or their unions. Despite pressure from the bosses, the tabloid press-who literally hid in the bushes outside "Red Ed" Blissett's house-the unions did not wash their hands of these workers. This struggle shows that the anti-union laws can be taken on.