Who says the wildcat strike is dead? When British Airways check-in staff promptly walked out in July, after management sought to impose a swipe card-based clocking-on system, they proved the power of the unofficial action.
The workers were, of course, right to be sceptical about the bosses' motives. The new “big brother” system would be used to monitor working hours, so bosses could even start sending people home during quiet periods, without pay. This would particularly affect the mainly women workers' ability to manage family commitments around working hours. Already, many are forced to do ‘tarmac transfers', passing children between partners at shift changes. This is only possible if people know their shift patterns 3 months in advance, as at present. Check-in workers only earn £200-240 per week, so paying for child care is not really an option.
The mainstream media gave their usual sympathetic opinion that the action was not only illegal, but counter-productive. Little mention was made of BA's £1.8 billion of reserves and £136 million profit in the last financial year, all from exploiting BA workers.
The unofficial action demonstrated the power and bravery of the check-out workers. It led to 360 flights being cancelled, and about 80,000 passengers delayed, not to mention tens of millions of pounds in costs for BA. The strike ended when the unions and BA agreed that the swipe card introduction would be delayed until September, following further consultation.
The role of the trade union leaders during the strike was, of course, appalling. However, the workers are talking of further action, if negotiations do not go according to plan. Having got their fingers burnt this time, maybe BA will be more circumspect when it comes to future negotiations. Or maybe the profits to be made through the new clocking-on system will outweigh their fear of further strike action.
Only direct action by the workers themselves will ensure success; it was the so-called ‘illegal' worker-controlled walk-out which worked last time – and it will be a similar worker-controlled action which will work next time.
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