BA: Unite wins battle, but who will win the war?

Yesterday I as at the press conference where Unite, in the form of assistant general secretary Len McCluskey (q.v.) announced the successful result of their British Airways strike ballot. The mood was cool and determined, the message simple: cabin crew have a massive grievance, and BA needs to deal with it.

It was all very different from last year, when Unite hired Sandown Park racecourse for a rally to celebrate their massive strike vote – a move some in the union now see as a bit too triumphalist. The union believes that the person who filmed a video of the event, leaked onto the web, was a BA plant.

After suffering the setback of last year’s even-bigger-than this-one strike vote being overturned by the High Court, the union says it has rooted out all the unwanted names, and is confident of success if it decides in the next few days to hold a strike. The ball is firmly back in BA’s court; if they have been trying to persuade staff not to choose strike action through threatening to withdraw perks and training pilots to stand in for them, those tactics have clearly failed.

There’s more. I hear that BA’s proposed salaries are so low as to undercut cabin crew on certain lower-fare airlines. If true, it sounds like they won’t be able to hang onto staff.

So Unite has won this battle. But there’s a lot more to the union’s discontent with BA than just pay and staffing levels – although those are the grounds for the strike – not that the union’s officers were letting on about it last night. Unite is wary of BA’s plans to create a “new fleet” of planes staffed by cabin crew on lower pay and conditions. But it can’t complain about that too much at the moment – for fear of being accused of striking on invalid grounds, another legal challenge.

It could be as much about breaking Unite’s grip on the cabin crew as much as anything else. Ninety-eight per cent of BA cabin crew are unionised – a density to die for in other sectors and indeed other unions, and a rare bastion of such union strength and discipline nowadays. The union’s sector officials feel the need to tand up to BA to prove their relevance and value to their members – the best apparent way to thwart any attempt to introduce a two-tier system (of which more here). So Unite has won for now – but who will win the war?

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