Air traffic controllers at HIAL with the union Prospect finally go on strike, shutting down multiple airports, in long running dispute over planned control tower relocation and centralisation! Why has it taken so long? Is the union scared of bad media publicity? Negotiations have been ongoing for nearly a year with no progress, why’ll the company continually pushes ahead with its plans. How can the workers patience be in question? Yet still, the Herald article above, questions the legitimacy of the strike by putting the word “forced” in scare quotes and seeks to convince readers that the workers are irresponsible by calling the flights that were cancelled by the strike, “lifeline planes.” The media will never be on the workers side, no matter how obvious our “patience” is. If the boss isn’t listen and we have the ability to shut the operation down, do it! How else are we going to teach the bosses, to do as they’re told.
At Heathrow, once we’ve decided what we want, what actions shall we take to get it? And what can our method of action tell us about what we want? Some recent events might give us some hints.
Livorno and Naples Dockworkers.
Amidst the continuing atrocities against Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories, in mid-May, Italian dock workers at the Port of Livorno are refusing to load weapons destined for Israel. The workers of the USB (Unione Sindacale di Base) in collaboration with the Autonomous Collective of Port Workers of Genoa and the WeaponWatch association discovered the shipment and issued a statement. Dockworkers in Naples with the S.I.Cobas union also stated their determination to refuse to load military shipments destined for Israel, should they discover them. These actions aren’t totally spontaneous, but the result of ongoing organising work. Dockworkers in Genoa did the same in solidarity against the slaughter in Yemen with a shipment destined for Saudi Arabia back in 2019. After that action, Weapon Watch was established – a research group monitoring arms traffic in European and Mediterranean ports. In this region of Italy, links have been formed between researchers, autonomous worker collectives and base unions, to create situations where actions to defend working class people thousands of miles away are possible. Scaled up, these could be perceived as the embryonic rudiments of a counter-power capable of taking on nation-states and transnational corporations.
Refusing to do something you are contractually obligated to carry out isn’t allowed. But companies have limited options if the workers have unity, as the examples above show. It becomes not so much about whether something is legal or illegal but what power do workers have at work? What is the cost for bosses if they steamroller something through? Teachers in Chicago went on wildcat strikes a few years ago and even though they were thoroughly illegal, they had enough power to get their demands met nevertheless.
This is especially interesting for us as workers at Heathrow – a major logistics hub. Heathrow was already Britain’s largest port by value. The pandemic has seen demand for freight increase, even judged against pre-Covid levels. February 2021 saw a 9% increase on 2019 levels of freight. Companies are keeping less stock meaning they need to quickly order bits in when they run out; manufacturing in general is holding up quite well, and the pandemic is disrupting supply chains causing delivery delays, which prompts companies to opt for air transport, which is quicker. Added to this is huge quantities of PPE flown in since the beginning of the crisis. With passenger numbers likely to be uncertain in the near future and cargo proven more reliable and profitable in these troubled times, companies are likely to adjust their infrastructure and business models to accommodate it. Emirates adapting a huge double decker A380 into a cargo plane is a sign of this trend. This all means that, like dockworkers on the west coast of Italy, as Heathrow workers, we have a significant effect on global trade and power relations. Us workers have enormous potential power to wield, if we choose and make steps to use it. The relative success of the BA Cargo strike late last year shows that BA management were willing to make greater concessions to their cargo division than the other departments. The question is how to use it to link up to other groups of Heathrow workers, who may not wield so much direct power (e.g. cleaners), but who are vital parts of the Heathrow machine.
Organised port workers studying their own situation and realising the power they have, can improve their living standards, support workers elsewhere to do the same and contribute to the development of a broader discussion and understanding about aviation, global trade, the environment, human emancipation and the conflicting relationships between them. They can also offer direct, practical solidarity to their brothers and sisters overseas in their struggles, as the recent cases with Palestinians show.
Glasgow Immigration Raid
On the 2nd May, a crowd gathered in Kenmure Street, Glasgow in reaction to a dawn raid by immigration officials. Officials barged into the top-floor flat of the two men who have reportedly lived in the area for 10 years and work as a mechanic and chef. The men, originally from India, were loaded into a van to be taken to a detention centre because of “suspected immigration offences.” The crowd prevented the vehicle from leaving by the sheer weight of their numbers. After a nine hour stand off, the two men were released and escorted to a local Gurdwara for protection.
What started off as a few people with signs making phone calls soon turned into a crowd of hundreds. The protest didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Tensions within the local community surrounding asylum issues have been escalating over the years and the community has been organising. The No Evictions and Anti-Raids networks have been active in raising awareness and attempting to disrupt Immigration Enforcement operations. That said, unless many members of the local community not linked to those groups had come out and refused to allow the abduction of their neighbour, they wouldn’t have achieved what they achieved. It was an amazing display of solidarity. It shows that people have considerable power to dictate the course of events, when they act together. It is clearly “illegal” to completely block the transportation of someone that Immigration Enforcement have earmarked for detention. But after watching the footage of the event, it’s hard not to conclude that with enough social force, the law begins to become pretty inconsequential. The roar of collective joy released when the men emerge from the back of the van is spine tingling. A healthy ripple of jealousy should reverberate through those of us that weren’t lucky enough to be involved. It should spur our efforts to cultivate the kind of environment in which these actions are more common and the exhilaration of overcoming the authorities, more widely dispersed. The Home Office has not given up and have said they’re committed to prosecuting the case. But they have been given a bloody nose and the community will have grown in confidence.
Again, Heathrow potentially has a quite significant role to play in all this. With deportation flights leaving from Heathrow and Europe’s largest detention centres on our doorstep, workers here are ideally placed to intervene. The so-called “hostile environment“ is being turbocharged under the stewardship of Priti Patel. The poor conditions at detention centres (not that we would find good detention conditions acceptable), the dawn raids outlined above, and the Home Office’s dodging of due process in asylum cases, is causing a massive amount of unnecessary suffering. The stated purpose is to discourage ‘illegal’ immigrants. The often implied purpose is the racist scapegoating of migrants that “drive down “our” wages,” while simultaneously stealing all “our” jobs and claiming all “our” benefits.
Recent reports of labour shortages due to Covid, Brexit and the hostile environment, which may lead to an increase in wages, will obviously cause problems for employers, eager for available workers to make them profits, but will play well politically for the UK’s ruling elite. The Conservatives and their media mouthpieces will spin a narrative, using increasing wages to justify the restrictions to immigration. Some workers will agree and reason that they have things hard enough and that they don’t need any extra competition from migrants. While this might be true in the short-term, this view fails to see the mutual interest all workers have in fighting together for improved living standards and control of our workplaces and communities. The rich can move their money wherever the labour is cheapest. If our wages get too high for the capitalists to stomach, they can migrate elsewhere. How does it benefit us to pretend that throwing up “our” borders solves anything? The system is so sick and perverse that it punishes us for improving our lot. Either through inflation, benefit cuts, improved technology or offshoring, the gains we make can be taken away from us in an endless cycle. Escaping this loop though needs a longer-term perspective and a realisation that the power of today’s rich resides in their ability to blackmail workers and even nation-states, with taking their investments elsewhere.
Workers’ response should be global in outlook and pay no respect to borders that benefit the ruling class at the expense of our fellow workers abroad. But when things seem hopeless, it’s easy to see that people look after themselves first and foremost. This is even more so when we see how many workers have, for the most part, been on the defensive for a good many years now, the attempts to to fight ‘fire and rehire’ strategies from management being the most recent example.
Aviation workers everywhere have significant power to challenge the dominant border regimes – if we coordinate our efforts. If we refuse to deport people, they can’t be deported. If we blockade detention centres, people can’t be detained. Much like the Italian dockworkers, it’s possible to conceive of a collaboration at Heathrow, between research/campaign groups like Detention Action, autonomous workers collectives like our own, and more militant unions leading to actions that help to destroy the “hostile” environment and create a much better one. Workers can come up with alternatives to the global Hunger Games we are expected to fight in. And have the power to bring them about.
Old Trafford Pitch Invasion
2nd May 2021 saw the first ever protest induced postponement of a Premier League football match in history. The scheduled Manchester United home fixture against Liverpool was abandoned after Manchester fans broke into the ground and occupied the pitch. Fans lit fireworks and flares and held banners and placards calling for the club owners (Billionaire businessmen Glazer brothers) to “fuck off.” The protest wasn’t entirely peaceful. Fans showed a large amount of commitment and dedication to entering the stadium. Police reported (to the extent that we can believe them) that six officers were injured in the protests, with one sustaining a fractured eye socket.
The cause of the protests was anger against club owners and (their now aborted) proposals for a new European Super League (ESL). The league’s announcement at 11pm on 18 April, to accommodate US audiences, was accompanied by rising share prices and jubilant advertisers. ESL operations were suspended three days after its founding due to a furious backlash from national football governing bodies, pundits, players and fans. Some fans are continuing the protests in an effort to get their clubs under new ownership. The Old Trafford pitch invasion was part of that effort.
It has been interesting to watch football legends turned pundits debate societal values and capitalism in their pre-match discussions. The whole affair has foregrounded debates about the state of our economic system and the trajectory of our society in general, more than most issues today. What the ESL proposed for football was, in many ways, another example of what has been happening in advanced economies for decades – the offshoring of production. While ticket sales, merchandise and TV subscriptions still contribute a significant amount of income for clubs, like so many industries, the real money comes from advertising. When an industry is dominated by an advertising revenue model, the product is not this or that widget, but the eyes watching the screen. The products are the fans watching the match, the consumers are advertisers. The greater the number of eyes on the match, the more you can demand for your advertising space.
Advertisers also want the viewers with the fattest wallets watching. No point advertising your high-end products or your gambling website to people with no money! This is partly the rationale behind the ever-increasing season ticket prices and the disgusting amount of atmosphere-destroying corporate boxes, full of hob-knobbing company boot-lickers separated from the hoi polloi and not watching the match. Corporations, and the wealthy elite that run them, don’t want informed, secure and empowered members of a community. They want ill-informed, insecure, impotent and isolated individuals – so they’re easier to rip off. Advertisers see the pitch as a distraction from the billboards and the match is the interlude before the important bit: the adverts. The fans’ love and sense of connection to the clubs (that are now transnational corporations) is the unpaid labour that fuels this industry. Under this model football’s historic ties to working class communities are being shattered. The orchestrators of the ESL were attempting to expand the scale of this market to other continents and increase their share of the existing revenue stream by setting themselves up as an elite league. The terrible job the would-be ESL owners made in pitching the proposals exposes their level of detachment. It’s pretty clear they have no idea what the fans of their clubs are thinking – and don’t care.
The backlash from fans, players and pundits was intense, but may not have been the major factor in getting the ESL suspended. The national governing bodies were obviously incensed and made various threats. There is a plausible theory that the ESL clubs were merely making a power play in an attempt to get a better deal from their respective governing bodies, UEFA and FIFA. Whatever the case may be, fans are now looking for solutions and contemplating actions. Many fans are wondering whether fan ownership is the answer. The refusal of the German clubs, that traditionally have far more fan ownership than in the UK, to participate in the ESL seems to support this view. Other fans, like those at Arsenal, drawn in by promises of “fan representation,”are pinning their hopes on a supposedly more benevolent billionaire, Spotify owner Daniel Ek and a consortium of team legends to save their club.
Fans have been discussing how they might link up with other fans across borders to press their interests. Reports of Barcelona fans kicking off were welcomed and debated. Some form of fan ownership may be a step in the right direction, but if fans really want to revive the feeling of attachment and local community that they expect from their involvement, questioning the capitalist’s system that drags their beloved game and everything else of value into the gutter, is essential. If football remains beholden to advertisers, fan-owned clubs will be subject to the same pressures and imperatives as big money owned clubs and degenerate just as surely. The profit motive is noxious and corrupting.
A major consequence of the direct action at Old Trafford was that a day after the protest, and following other protests across the country, the Premier League announced plans to bring in a new owners’ charter, which would prevent football club owners from forming future breakaway leagues, as well as introducing further restrictions and tougher penalties for non-compliance. More importantly on 8 May, UK retail and technology company The Hut Group pulled out of a £200 million sponsorship deal with the club due to the protests.
Is this such a bad thing given all of the above? It depends on what you want. When it comes to football, it is amazing and frustrating in equal measure to see fellow workers speaking with such erudition and acting with such conviction. We have incredible knowledge about the ins and outs of the entire process and have complete confidence that we are capable of doing just as good a job as those at the top. “I can play better than that idiot,” “the manager’s dog shit, he should use these tactics.” We make these assertions even though they are almost never true for premier league clubs (most top flight players and managers didn’t get to where they are by being crap at what they do) and even though we have almost no influence over the course of events. Why don’t we think like this when it comes to something we genuinely do know about and have influence over? – Our work!! If we spent half the time we spend on pondering a tactical decision at a match we can’t influence, in thinking about the way we want our daily lives to be run, we would be well on our way to solving a great many problems in our society!
Direct action could be defined as the use of one’s own power to achieve a political/economic end, as opposed to solutions that appeal to authorities for help. On this very narrow definition alone, it should be clear why direct action is preferable to all other forms of political engagement. If we have the power to effect a desired change, why would we appeal to authority to do it on our behalf? But do we have the power? 250 years ago, in his essay, ‘Of the First Principles of Government’, David Hume addressed the paradox that,
“Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs….. than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men (sic) resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only, that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”
If we take Hume’s comment on face value, it would imply that all we need to do is change our ‘opinions’; for us to realise that actually, it is us that have the power and we just need to stop accepting the state or bosses’ control over us. But if it were this simple, I’m sure we’d have told the bosses to fuck off by now! So what’s missing? We think that material conditions – mainly an economic system that forces us to relate to one another and our wider environment in a competitive and exploitative way – help form our opinions. They also prevent or discourage the development of opinions and the acquisition of knowledge that might challenge the dominant power structures in our society. So how do we overcome these structures, whose very purpose is to keep us disciplined and feeling powerless? Unlike reading an essay by some old Tory philosopher, we think direct action can more concretely, change our social relations, and therefore our ‘opinions’. The act of using our own powers to achieve our objectives, has the effect of affirming and expanding those powers and altering our perception and consciousness of their scope and application.
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.
The WISAG ground workers maintained their hunger strike at Terminal 1 of Rhein-Main Airport for eight days before they had to break it off on the evening of March 3. Before that several hunger strikers had collapsed since Sunday. The workers have temporarily suspended their action, “exclusively for health reasons,” as they say.
The ground workers are fighting against 230 dismissals, increasing exploitation and low wages. They have not capitulated, but on the contrary want to expand the struggle. In a courageous appeal published today by the World Socialist Web Site, they say: “Workers everywhere are facing very similar problems. We must fight together! (…) We, the workers, are ‘essential’, without us society does not function. We say: Life before profits! The health and well-being of the workers are more important than the profits of the financial oligarchy.”
The first day of the hunger strike at Rhein-Main Airport (WSWS) The industrial action at WISAG illustrates the problems facing workers in microcosm. Thirty years ago, if you had a job at the airport, you were set for life. Such jobs were part of the public sector, reasonably paid, with guaranteed employment and a company pension, Christmas bonuses and holiday pay. Job security was a priority in every respect. Today, the dream job has turned into a nightmare.
WISAG is just one of the companies using the pandemic as an excuse to systematically cut jobs at the airport and destroy workers’ rights. At airport operator Fraport, 4,000 jobs out of 22,000 in Frankfurt am Main are to be cut, allegedly “due to coronavirus.” At Lufthansa, 30,000 jobs have already been destroyed worldwide, and another 10,000 are to follow. Lufthansa has received 9 billion euros in “coronavirus aid” from the state. WISAG itself has already laid off 350 ground workers in Berlin last summer.
The pandemic is only the trigger. Corporations and banks are using the opportunity to implement long desired plans for destroying jobs and important achievements and get rid of workers with seniority. This is exemplified by WISAG.
In 2018, the WISAG holding company used a court case to boot out the previous ground services provider, Acciona, at Frankfurt Airport and take over its concessions. Company owner Claus Wisser personally guaranteed all employees at the time that their rights would be fully protected as part of the transfer of operations. “At the time, we didn’t know that it was all a sham,” says Rene, one of the hunger strikers, “and that WISAG was just trying to prevent possible strikes.”
Almost immediately after the takeover, the company started to put pressure on older workers in order to get rid of them. Often they were forced to take on jobs that were not even in their contract. The teams working at the aircraft were understaffed and loadmasters were forced to work as loaders and baggage drivers, for example. Those who resisted were threatened with dismissal.
The tone was set by Michael Dietrich, the newly hired managing director, “a man who walks over corpses,” as WISAG workers say. What Dietrich says is the law, whether it complies with regulations and safety rules or not. Temporary workers are put to work on planes without professional training. One worker reports, “As a result, there were many accidents and damage. One worker was even blown 4 to 5 metres in the air because he got behind a running engine. But Fraport and WISAG covered it all up.”
The pandemic opened up previously undreamed-of possibilities for management. Immediately, WISAG officially introduced short-time working, which means workers’ wages are paid by the employment office, but only at 60 percent, so they suffer considerable wage losses.
At the same time, however, operations in the cargo division continue. While passenger numbers have plummeted, there is intense activity around the clock between the planes and cargo halls. The transport of food, relief supplies, medicines etc. has not stopped. After all, supply chains must be maintained to provide parts to industries that have not been closed down during the whole pandemic.
As a result, some have had to work overtime. “People worked 160 to 200 hours,” says Benli, a worker whom WISAG dismissed after 37 years’ service. “In fact, 40 to 50 planes were dispatched every day. And now, in March, there are significantly more.”
Even when colleagues fell ill with coronavirus, not even their closest team members were sent into quarantine. The company’s response was cover-up instead of contact tracing—a situation that can lead to disaster in an outbreak with a highly contagious strain of the virus.
Then on December 17, just a week before Christmas, a total of 230 workers received notice of dismissal “in the most brazen way.” They were offered about 4,000 Euros severance pay for 20 years’ service. Workers were coerced into signing severance agreements and re-employed at another WISAG subsidiary at minimum wage, giving up all their acquired rights, with a fixed-term contract and on the condition that they could be deployed throughout Germany. Still other workers had their terms and conditions changed.
Thirty-one airport bus drivers were forced to switch to the brand new subsidiary City Bus. This company is one of more than 300 corporate constructs that WISAG has set up, hidden or open, to depress wages and break contracts. Those who refused the offer were dismissed and their pay stopped from October 2020. This is what the “unavoidable dismissals” look like, about which company chief Michael C. Wisser wrote in his most recent letter to his “dear colleagues.” The sackings were “by no means easy,” he said. The trade union Verdi also claims to have known “nothing at all” until the end of January.
The hunger strike has also shone a glaring light on the role of the so-called “workers’ representatives”—the large service union Verdi and the works council. As the hunger strikers’ statement says: “Our struggle has not been supported by Verdi officials, nor by the works council.”
That is why more than a hundred WISAG workers have left Verdi and become members of the smaller sectoral union IG Luftfahrt (IGL). However, the latter shares the same perspective as Verdi, with which it professes to want to cooperate. The IGL is trying to use the workers’ protests to put pressure on the Wisser family, one of the 300 richest families in Germany, to convince them of the need for a “crisis collective agreement”—the cost of which will ultimately have to be paid by the workers!
The workers are rightly turning to their colleagues at other WISAG sites, at airports and throughout the industry, because they are their only reliable allies. The increasingly brutal attacks can only be repelled and reversed through an independently organised joint struggle.
What is needed is a fight at the political level. As one WISAG worker wrote on Facebook, “Since there are probably Verdi people on the WISAG board, and Claus Wisser has also donated a lot of money to parties, especially to the SPD [Social Democrats], the politicians are dumb and blind as far as what’s happening at WISAG is concerned.”
The WISAG workers were on hunger strike for eight days, but no parliamentary group in the Hesse state parliament, in Frankfurt City Hall or in the Bundestag (federal parliament) even looked at what was happening. The Wisser family is well networked and connected with high-ranking politicians, such as the Hesse state Minister of Economics and Transport, Tarek Al-Wazir (Green Party), who actively promoted WISAG’s entry into the airport.
The local and regional press has kept silent about the hunger strike. Apart from very brief reports once in the Bil d and twice on broadcaster RTL, there was literally nothing, neither in the Frankfurter Rundschau, the FNP, the Offenbach Post, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung nor in the Hessenschau. This clearly shows that the freedom of the press is really degenerating into mere court reporting in the service of the capitalists.
Staff employed by OCS, a facilities company contracted by the airport, are facing compulsory redundancy.
It is due to the downturn in traffic at the airport, which means the facilities staff are no longer required.
“The workers are angry. They’re not going down without a fight,” Tony Carroll, Aviation Officer with trade union SIPTU said.
A meeting this morning with OCS will dictate whether SIPTU ballots for strike action.
OCS, an international facilities management company, once employed 20 people to work in wheelchair assistance. That number dropped to six, and now the company wants to make three more compulsory redundancies, Mr Carroll said.
“The minimum number required when airport traffic picks up a bit again is six people,” he said.
“Why make these people redundant if they will just have to hire them again in a couple of months?”
The employees have offered to be temporarily laid off while Cork Airport continues to operate on reduced capacity due to Covid, but Mr Carroll said that this offer has not been entertained.
“There’s no logical reason to make them redundant when they’re willing to be laid off and wait until work picks up again,” he said.
A strike could bring the airport to a standstill, he said, as the majority of workers there are SIPTU members.
“If we picket Cork Airport, SIPTU members won’t pass the picket. And if SIPTU workers won’t pass it, and if airport police and the fire service won’t pass the picket, then the airport can’t operate.”
Passengers and flights through Cork airport plunged by 99.5% in February.
Solidarity TD Mick Barry hit out at OCS and said he will raise the matter in the Dáil.
Like everywhere else, the situation at Heathrow continues to shift and change. The governments “road map,” laid out on 22nd February, offered light at the end of the tunnel for frustrated holiday makers eager to escape the stress of the last year. Airlines and travel companies saw a massive increase in bookings for June and beyond. The shares of airlines and travel companies rose rapidly, in a sign that rich folk are betting these companies are going to bounce back strongly after all lockdowns are lifted. IAG saw its shares rise higher than any other FTSE 100 firm at the same time it was announcing scary sounding losses of £7.8billion. This needs to be put in the context of them still reporting liquidity of £10.3billion. Financial institutions are more than willing to lend them money because they know they are going to be okay. The big airline groups are positioning themselves to hoover up the competition and increase their market share after this crisis in much the same way as the giant banks did after the financial crisis of 2008.
As well as this, lots of businesses will be breathing a sigh of relief as the Job Retention Scheme (furlough) is extended till the end of September. All this offers some hope to much of the workforce, but also frustration. We believe that decisions about the way workplaces should be run should be made by the workers and community affected by those decisions. But, even by these companies own terms, all of the above shows what we knew all along: that the recent redundancies were clearly just opportunism and completely unnecessary. It also means the airlines will likely resume business as usual and that workers are missing the opportunity to discuss how we want the aviation industry to function in a time of pandemics and environmental breakdown. Business travel, previously airlines’ greatest money spinner, is unlikely to recover anytime soon, meaning airlines will probably look to increase leisure travel as much as possible. This will result in even more frivolous environment-destroying flights for those that can afford them (that’s not to say that business travel was any less frivolous and unnecessary). Is this what we want? If workers and our communities were in the driving seat, rather than the money-grubbing sociopaths currently steering the wheel, what would we do? It’s not too late for workers to start having this conversation. Let’s start now!
Disputes at Heathrow
Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL)
The HAL dispute, over the imposition of new inferior contracts, rumbles on. Fire, Engineering and Campus security workers with Unite, were back on strike again on the 5th and 9th February. No picket lines were maintained due to the Covid restrictions. Other workers across the UK have been setting up socially distanced pickets, but at Heathrow, Unite have chosen not to. This may be because of the reasons we set out in our strike day reports at the time. Most designated picket locations are awkward to get to for supporters and with road traffic reduced at this time, Unite don’t see the benefit of 6 workers standing in a caged area waving flags for the occasional beep of approval from passing vehicles. And they’re probably right, there isn’t much point of picketing in this fashion.
However, while strikes are not as effective as they would be when the airport is busier, there has to be a way of reaching out to the community to let them know about your struggle and of showing scabs that you can see them going into work on strike days. Leaving current Covid restrictions aside, even when it’s busier, the places where we are legally allowed to picket are not fit for purpose. The main purpose of pickets is to persuade fellow workers not to go to work when a strike is happening and to draw attention to your cause. This can’t be achieved if you’re miles away from the actual worksite and public thoroughfares and penned in like criminals. The need to picket effectively is essential to a healthy campaign. Have all legal means been pursued by the unions? The right to a proper picket line is supposed to be protected in this country, but is denied to us at Heathrow.
Further strikes were scheduled for the 13th, 16th, 18th and 21st February. On the 12th February it was announced that strikes were suspended to allow time for HAL to consider a “peace offer.” The talks broke down and workers were on strike again on the 21st. No pickets were maintained, and the only mention in the media was one tweet posted by Unite on the day. No press release or other social media information. The strikes are now 4 hours long rather than full day walk-outs. The reasons given are that this makes it harder for HAL to get cover (mainly from Mitie) while staff are striking, and shorter strikes mean a reduced loss of pay. It‘s positive that the union is considering ways to avoid contractors scabbing on their members, as this is a major problem all workplaces on the airport have to deal with when withdrawing their labour.
However, a friend at HAL told us that the whole question of whether the timing is right, hangs heavy on workers’ minds. And that mainly it’s security and fire workers that are still participating in the strike. The strategy appears to be to keep the dispute ticking over until the airport is busier, when actions will have more of an impact. If passenger numbers increase, as hoped, we need to make sure we support our fellow workers at HAL in their fight to regain their previous contracts. Demands should be expanded to ensure all newer contracts are improved as well, to fight the common problem across the airport of different contracts causing divisions and resentment amongst the workforce. The Terminals Security and members of other unions (PCS, Prospect, GMB) within the workplace whose ballots failed, need to be re-balloted and join in the effort. The struggle could be extended to include other Heathrow companies experiencing the same problems.
Passport Control staff employed by the Home Office have voted to strike against proposed unworkable roster changes. Extra checks for Covid-19 test certificates and hotel quarantine procedures for red list countries are causing serious queues and angry scenes. This looks like a perfect time for Passport Control staff to get their point across. Strike dates have not yet been announced.
Cleaners working for Mitie have been on the receiving end of disgusting treatment, as their company attempts to remove the training and language support they were previously entitled to before they sit the General Safety and Awareness training (GSAT) exam. This training is essential for workers whose first language is not English. Workers that fail the exam risk losing their jobs. It’s believed this is a cynical attempt to push out staff on older, better contracts. Bullying and harassment has also been reported. A collective grievance has been raised.
The community garden and 3rd runway protest hub in Sipson, known as Grow Heathrow, was evicted Monday 8th March. Around 20 people living at the camp were made homeless in what they are calling an illegal eviction. The area has been occupied and cultivated for over 10 years.
Ghana Airport Company
Workers at the Ghana Airport Company shut down operations at Kotoka International Airport on 26th February. The workers are calling for the removal of the Managing Director of the company for mismanagement and abuse of office. The strike caused massive disruption, which was only lifted after intervention from government officials. The unions have apparently given the government two weeks to look over their demands and act on them or they will resume the action.
A hunger strike has started in Frankfurt, Germany as around 290 ground staff protest against being sacked in October for refusing to be pushed onto inferior contracts. Staff were told to transfer to another company that was actually a subsidiary of WISAG, as a way of removing the workers’ continuous service and reducing their terms and conditions. This is ‘fire and rehire’ by another name. The workers union Verdi has done nothing to help them and the hunger strike is currently being supported by a smaller union called IGL.
Workers at handling company Groundforce in Madrid were on strike at the start of February against forced flexible working and reduced hours. The strike was called off mainly due to severely restrictive legislation meaning staff had to provide a “minimal service” even on strike days. The various problems faced by the workers will be very familiar to everyone at Heathrow. Full report here.
Tunisair workers have been on strike protesting the lack of a coherent reform plan from management. The company finances are being mismanaged to the degree that staff pay has been disrupted. The unions are stating that a reform plan involving privatisation will not be tolerated.
Interjet staff including pilots, cabin crew and others have been striking and demonstrating over 5 months of unpaid back-pay. The company is in serious trouble due to poor management even before the pandemic. It was running a high debt, cheap flight model, in a similar way to Norwegian.
If the effects of the pandemic continue to fade, workers’ positions won’t seem quite so vulnerable. Along with the increase in demand, the prevailing common sense tells us that there should be a corresponding rise in job security. However, for many workers, the pandemic has simply made already precarious employment worse. Pay, terms and conditions, and the general quality and security of jobs at the airport have been declining for decades, and the current crisis is merely turbo-charging this trend. A great many workers will not see returning to ‘normal’ as a particularly attractive proposition.
Added to this, Covid numbers changing trajectory as the lockdown is loosened or the risk of new strains and variants could still derail the government’s plans. Their terrible/criminal handling of the pandemic so far justifiably makes many people hesitant to throw up the victory banner just yet. The politicians’ recognition of ‘key workers’ as vital, important and deserving of respect, has been shown to be the phantom it always was with the derisory 1% pay increase for NHS workers. Other illusions are hopefully being exposed for what they are. With each attack on contracts, with each unnecessary redundancy and with every bully boy tactic deployed by management, the idea that workers interests are in any way aligned with those of their bosses will also be fading.
The tone set by companies at Heathrow, at the start of the pandemic, has rung out across the country. Hardly a day goes by without more news of another company firing and rehiring their staff. HAL workers on the picket lines in December were right. “When Heathrow sneezes, everywhere catches a cold.” Bus drivers (one of the worst hit professions during the Covid crisis in terms of exposure and deaths) in London and Manchester are being forced to strike to protect their conditions. In Manchester the drivers are out on indefinite strike (They’re not coming back until their demands are met). Across retail (Tesco, Argos, Morrison’s etc.) reports of workers being forced to reapply for their jobs proliferate. Even IT staff running tenancy checks for private landlords at software company Goodlord are striking against fire and rehire plans. University staff are in a number of disputes. Even industries that have not suffered from falling revenue at this time are seizing the opportunity to attack their staff. British Gas engineers continue their brave fight against Centrica. And trouble is percolating at Banbury coffee factory where JDE (Jacobs Douwe Egberts) is trying to force their workers onto inferior contracts.
These are just the ones we hear about, because unions have a presence at the workplace. TUC polling suggests that 1 in 10 workers have been told to reapply for their job or face the sack. This number goes up to almost one in five (18%) for employees between 18 and 24. 24% of workers have suffered a downgrade to their pay, hours or benefits. It’s possible these are underestimates. All this goes on while the UK rich make a killing, by simply owning properties and doing fuck all productive. This situation is repeated across the globe and workers’ most effective response would also traverse those artificial lines we call borders. Companies feel they can get away with this assault because they think we are all too isolated and scared to fight back. But we are getting sick of this. A fight back is brewing beneath the surface but no one is going to do it for us. We have to find each other, reach out, link up and act.
With the lifting of restrictions soon, we are looking to get back out leafleting and speaking with workers face to face. We want to come out of lockdown swinging, get on the front foot and start taking the fight to the bosses. We’ll be setting up a monthly drop-in (when things are actually open), where workers or anyone else with issues can come and discuss their problems with us. If you would like to be involved, get in touch!
Workers at the handling company Groundforce at Madrid airport took part in targeted strike action Monday 8th February. The strike was set to continue every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday of February. However, due to lack of effectiveness, the strike was suspended by unions on Monday 15th February.
Since the start of the pandemic the company has made workers conditions increasingly precarious. Bosses are cutting hours and demanding greater flexibility, in an effort to push the companies losses onto the workers. Under what is called the ERTE (Expediente de Regulación Temporal del Empleo), staff are given their shift pattern and the amount of hours they’ll be working each day, at the start of each week. However, sometimes they are given a days notice of changes. It means temporary laid-offs and part time work, of an already part time contract for many. Workers are not happy with the reductions or with the way they are shared out by management. Their strike action is hindered by the fact that legally the union’s must agree to provide “minimal services,” even during a strike. Meaning a large amount of staff still need to go in even on strike day. This makes organisation amongst the workers extremely important. The strikes effective hinged on what the attending staff, forced to provide the “minimal service,” are willing to do.
The Ministry of Transports in Spain decide the level of minimal service. They decided that for each route, of each company, the following services needed to be maintained:-
100% of flights with destination to Spanish islands (Canarias, Baleares).
39% of flights with destination to Spanish or foreign airports more than 500 km away from Madrid.
18% flights with destination to airports less than 500 km away.
In “normal times” the possibility of disruption to flights is reduced by these measures, but still attainable. During the pandemic, with a lot less flights taking off, the opportunity for disruption is greatly diminished. To compound the situation, workers cannot choose which flight in particular will be protected or not. For example, one strike day there were 2 flights of Air Europa bound to Barcelona. As this city is more than 500 km away from Madrid, the rate of protection is 39% for this route. So 1 of these 2 flights could be affected by the strike. But the workers cannot choose which one, it is the company who makes the decision.
Given the percentage of protection established by the government, the company submits a notification to the workers who will be forced to work on the strike day. From a staff of around 850 people, there are just around 70 who are allowed to strike. Obviously, not all 850 staff will be rostered on for the strike day, but it’s clear a lot of staff are not legally allowed to withdraw their labour.
On strike day, the workers who are performing minimal services (forced to work) must attend the protected flights (flights that the company and government say must be attended). In theory, the non protected flights should go unattended and not take off or take off empty. But given the small number of non protected flights, the company have had their own resources to attend these flights. For example, making the lower management load and unload the plane.
Under these conditions, workers would need to be heavily prepared, with an extremely well thought out strategy for this strike to be a success…..legally. The situation is made more difficult by the unions (6 unions, coordinated by a works council with 23 members) reluctance to gather workers together in assemblies, to talk about the problems and possible solutions. With the severe legal restrictions and management tactics to contend with, how else would these issues be dealt with, unless the majority of the workforce are on the same page. It’s easier said than done, but unless we’re attempting to build widespread solidarity, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. The strike wasn’t a success. It was neither a complete failure. Some disruption was caused and forcing lower management to work loading and unloading is satisfying. But given the conditions, there were many difficulties. Many Groundforce workers in Madrid intend to learn from these struggles and strive to find solutions, none the less.
These are very familiar problems to workers at Heathrow- Companies taking advantage of the crisis to attack workers terms and conditions. An increase and normalising of precarious employment. Frustrations and resentment about the way the JRS (furlough) has been shared out and implemented. Too many unions and not enough unity. And burdensome legal barriers to workplace actions.
The details may be different but the problems are the same. From employment law, that forces HAL workers onto small, isolated picket lines when they’re on strike, makes it hard for their security section to ballot for action and allows management to train scabs, to British Airways staff suffering attacks to their pay and conditions, to Mitie cleaners fighting bullying and harassment at T5, to the Passport Control staff striking against the implementation of unworkable roster changes, workers all over Heathrow should have no problem identifying and feeling solidarity with the workers at Groundforce Madrid. We will always have more in common with our fellow workers, than with our employers. Our governments and bosses will encourage us to fight and compete with each other, as they keep us jumping threw the hoops of their employment law.
The last year should have made clear to workers everywhere the simple truth that, as long as workers aren’t organised enough to resist, the bosses will keep pushing their losses onto us. Workers direct control of their disputes is a global necessity. We need more workers involved in planning, strategising and carrying out actions to defend and improve their conditions.
Solidarity from Heathrow to the workers at Groundforce Madrid.
TUNIS, Feb 18 (Reuters) – Tunisair workers will strike on Friday to protest the lack of a reform plan by the company and over the freezing of company accounts by an airport operator, their labour union said on Thursday.
The strike is expected to affect flights, the Tunisair syndicate official for the country’s main UGTT labour union Elyess Ben Miled said by phone.
Tunisair officials reached by Reuters declined to comment.
The Tunisian government, the union and foreign lenders have urged reforms at state-owned Tunisair. The airline has a higher proportion of staff to planes than almost any other aviation company and requires expansive state subsidy.
The UGTT, Tunisia’s most powerful organisation with more than a million members, opposes any reform plan that would involve privatising the company but says it wants reforms to make it more profitable.
It has said it is open to reducing the workforce.
Turkey’s TAV, which operates Tunisia’s Enfidha and Monastir airports, has frozen Tunisair accounts there because the company owes it 29 million dinars ($10.7 million), Ben Miled said.
He said this threatened the payment of salaries to employees.
Kahena Mamlouk, the head of TAV’s local subsidiary TAV Tunisie, confirmed that Tunisair owes it 29 million dinars and it has carried out a legal process to freeze the company’s accounts.
TAV will meet the Transport Ministry on Friday and hoped to reach a deal on the payments, she added.
Heathrow suffered further strain over Christmas heading into the new year. First with the discovery of the new Covid variant in the lead up to Christmas, which caused countries to ban flights from the UK. Secondly, the government’s removal of safe travel corridors on the 18th January meant much tighter restrictions on all passengers in and out of the airport. With the imminent imposition of new quarantine rules on travellers to the UK, forcing them to stay in hotels at their own expense on arrival, the aviation industry has its back against the wall.
Aviation’s track record on safety has been pretty dismal so far. Even though passenger numbers have fallen drastically (73% lower in 2020), reports of overcrowding in terminals is raising fears that the airport is a super-spreader event waiting to happen.  Social distancing in airports is proving difficult. A plane of 300 people would require a check-in queue of about 1km to be adequately socially distanced. The fact that all the passengers are going to be in a sealed cabin anyway adds to the feeling of futility that surrounds efforts to make air travel safe. Like most workplaces, safety concerns at Heathrow are increasing. The measures being adopted to protect passengers and staff probably should have been rolled out a long time ago. But as is the case with everything in our society, profit comes first.
How much money you’ve got also affects how you experience this pandemic. New figures have revealed how wealthy flyers are dodging the travel restrictions the rest of us have had to put up with. In August, private flights returned to 93% of pre-pandemic levels. December saw a similar increase. The flights are still considered “business travel,“ but the destinations have changed. Regular European locations have been shunned, for sunnier destinations like the Maldives and Caribbean islands.  Not likely many business conferences are happening there!
As the virus goes on threatening our loved ones and disrupting business as usual, companies continue their attacks on staffing levels and terms and conditions. Budget airline Norwegian, announced the loss of 1,100 jobs at Gatwick.  The airline quickly expanded in the good times, offering cheap flights and becoming heavily indebted in an effort to hoover up market share. Norwegian was in financial trouble before the pandemic and is now dumping its staff rapidly. This is a common feature of modern airlines – and lots of other industries (think Carillion). It’s also a good example of how irrationally we organise our workplaces. The system we live in creates airlines that consider nothing but profit, offering super-cheap, environment-destroying flights, creating jobs with continually declining terms and conditions, in an industry that clearly needs to shrink if we’re to avoid our planet boiling. Then a pandemic comes along, which itself is partly caused by our destructive relationship to our planet and thousands of workers get laid off from jobs they probably shouldn’t have been doing in the first place. Isn’t it time we stopped allowing bosses and the shareholders they serve, deciding where and how we should spend the majority of our waking hours?!
From Manchester bus drivers to British Gas engineers to BA Cargo workers, companies are seeking to “fire and rehire” their employees on inferior contracts. Workers are fighting back, but there hasn’t been many attempts to practically link these struggles together, despite the similarity of the situations workers find themselves in. Below, we take a closer look at some of these situations and why the workforce continues to be divided.
Isolation within the same workplace: Heathrow
At British Airways Cargo, the company threatened to cut their workers’ pay (25% for some staff), downgrade other terms and conditions (holiday, sick etc) and break up their bargaining unit (making them negotiate for pay separate to the rest of BA staff). BA also threatened to outsource their cargo operation all together.  All this is very similar to what Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) have been doing with their staff. BA spokespeople, like HAL’s, have been telling the media that large numbers of staff on newer contracts are actually getting a pay rise out of the proposals. Given the 98% return for strike action, it looks as though most staff have seen through these divide and rule tactics. Like a great many workplaces at Heathrow, the divide between staff on old and new contracts is a tricky one to navigate. A cargo worker told us that although most of the newer staff walked out during the strike over 9 days on Boxing Day,, there is still a feeling that they are under-represented and that the strike was mainly about protecting the old contracts. Although the old guard on the night shift stand to lose £11,000 and 20 year bods stand to lose £8,000, these are still amounts that newer starters never had in the first place.
As is the case elsewhere at Heathrow, workers that have been there a long time also often occupy the easier jobs and the better shift patterns. Resentment can easily grow and just as easily derail industrial action if left unchecked. In this particular instance, it’s believed the timing of the strike at Christmas and the £70 a day strike fund, may have been enough to get newer starters on board with the strike. But any strategy that is going to last will need to address the inferior conditions of newer starters. Workers on these contracts need a forum where they can make their own demands.
This holds true for the HAL dispute as well. A new strike date has been announced for the 5th February. The purpose is to show HAL that the dispute isn’t going away and that when things pick up, they will be in for a fight. Just before the new HAL date was announced though, the latest round of BA Cargo strikes were postponed the day before they were scheduled to take place (22/01/2020) to allow time for fresh negotiations. The BA strike was then cancelled the following week. The union proclaimed a tub-thumping victory as always, but the small print stated that: “Workers will revert to previous contractual provisions subject to agreed changes”. There is no detail of what these changes are. When we spoke to a cargo worker, he claimed not to know either. It’s good that old contracts are defended, but what does it mean for people on new contracts, and what does ‘agreed changes’ mean? More importantly, why is Unite not using the stronger economic clout of Cargo to help defend conditions of HAL ground staff?
What is clear, is that the whole situation is screaming out to be linked up in some way. Two sets of workers in the same union, in the same industry, in effectively the same workplace, in dispute at the same time, over almost exactly the same issues and they are not linking up their strikes?! It’s a sign of the times and unfortunately not surprising. The union’s response to BA’s fire and rehire threats at the start of the pandemic highlighted that workers’ focus is no longer ‘too sectoral’ but ‘too departmental.’  Even unified responses within companies are hard to come by these days, let alone across industries. There are loads of reasons for this problem, but the first step is to admit it is a problem. Much more criticism needs to be levelled against those that do not acknowledge or try to minimise this problem.
Unions understandably want to emphasise the benefits of workers being in a union. However, this sometimes takes the form of triumphant declarations of victory at times when any kind of concession has been won from employers. Often what is needed at these times is an honest assessment of what “winning” should look like. We can still be happy that BA didn’t get away with murder, while acknowledging the flaws in our strategies. In fact, we believe it’s a good way of showing solidarity to your fellow workers. Workers are continually giving up too much ground. It is obviously, almost always beneficial for workers to be in a union. But, when relative to other workers, unionised workers’ living standards are simply declining slower than the living standards of non-unionised workers, is this really something to celebrate? How do we get on the front foot? How do we turn the tide and start winning big, without linking up our disputes?
Isolation within the same company: Rolls Royce
The huge (online) school teachers’ mobilisations across the country and across the unions forced the government into a u-turn when it came to reopening of schools after Christmas. The government choosing to scrap their “review of employment rights,” after a unified statement from a number of unions, shows the political class is feeling far from confident. Unions don’t seem to be capitalising fully on these shows of weakness though. The Rolls Royce dispute at Barnoldswick, didn’t even manage to spread across the company, let alone across the industry. We attended a Facebook live event where the host ignored at least two questions in the comments clearly stating that the rest of the Rolls Royce Combine should be getting involved in the dispute. Instead the host read out numerous questions for the panellists to answer about what the “government should be doing to help the workers.” After going on a staggered strike for nine weeks, they got a deal that guarantees them at least 350 staff, manufacturing for ten years and no more redundancies for two years. It’s highly likely that without this fight the site would have been offshored as planned. However, the site is still getting smaller. 520 staff were employed at the site at the start of the dispute and a great deal more in the not so distant past. What could have been achieved if more workers had been directly involved in the dispute? .
This dispute, like so many others right now, was begging to be escalated across companies and industries, but wasn’t. In the years to come, how resilient will this workplace be against the numerous pressures that the global economy is throwing up? It is a victory, but how firm are the foundations it was built on?
Struggles on the horizon
Passport Control workers in the PCS union have voted to strike over changes to their roster. Previous arrangements have allowed staff flexibility, which was especially helpful for workers with caring responsibilities at home. Their employer, the Home Office, is saying the changes are to keep the workplace COVID safe. Workers believe this is simply opportunism on the part of their employer to bring about changes they would prefer.  Sounds very familiar. With HAL workers set to strike on the 5th February, this is another good opportunity for unions to work together and coordinate their actions.
British Airways are continuing their cuts, but are now also focusing on their contractors. Xerox post room staff were unnecessarily rushed through a redundancy process in the run up to Christmas and given notice of redundancy on New Year’s Eve. And CBRE Property maintenance staff on the BA contract are in the process of having their numbers cut to unsafe levels. Buildings are in a poor condition due to lack of maintenance and air conditioning systems are not being maintained to the standard required during a pandemic. The GMB is considering escalating the situation to the Health and Safety Executive. 
It’s fairly clear that unless workers start combining their efforts across unions, companies, industries and eventually borders, we’re not going to be able to resist the bosses’ blitz on our conditions. Workers on the HAL picket lines in December were keen to combine their efforts with the BA Cargo workers.  Workers can see the logic and there is a definite appetite for it. Loads of workers at Heathrow and in aviation everywhere are in the same boat. If we were better organised, we would be able to offer support outside of our industry as well. The British Gas engineers are currently fighting their own “fire and rehire” battle at the same time as many of us. Their fight is made harder by the fact that within their own company they are isolated. British Gas office staff in Unison, voted to accept the contract changes, while engineers in the GMB voted to strike. British Gas was making huge profits before the pandemic and hasn’t been particularly adversely affected by the crisis. The company’s opportunistic move is even more blatant than the aviation industries efforts.
Even before the crisis, while companies have been making massive profits, most of us have been seeing our living standards squeezed. The pandemic is just accelerating the downward trend. In early January, BA confirmed a £2billion loan underwritten by the government and boasted that “that it continues to have strong liquidity with cash and undrawn facilities of €8.0 billion as of November 30th” 2020.  The boards, shareholders and the management lackeys at these companies are going to be okay. Why should our fellow workers struggle to make ends meet? We don’t have to accept it. Full support and solidarity with HAL and Home Office workers in their upcoming struggles!
Together we can apply the pressure needed to make sure we aren’t the ones that pay for the bosses crisis. If you want to get involved with our efforts to bring this about, or have any information about what’s happening on the ground at your workplace, get in touch!