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Proletarian issue 37 (August 2010)
Industry matters: BA strikes, BBC pensions
Post-election skirmishes on the industrial front have revealed a combination of leadership nervousness and grass roots anger over the efforts being made to make workers pay for the capitalist crisis.
BA

Unite gave BA till 29 June to deliver on three matters of contention: the undercutting of cabin crew pay by drafting in employees from other parts of the company on inferior terms; the punitive removal of travel facilities from strikers; and the continued victimisation of strike-supporters.

Having already clocked up a total of 22 strike days, observed by 70 percent of rostered staff and costing BA over £154m, members of the BASSA section of Unite had certainly made clear their stamina for a fight. It had been understood that failure by BA to meet the 29 June deadline would trigger an immediate ballot for further strike action.

All this changed, however, when BA management issued an eleventh hour, take-it-or-leave-it set of proposals. Unite reported that these included some ‘protections’ for the pay levels of existing cabin crew. But on the victimisation issue, members were simply told that the union was seeking an independent review, and no concession whatever was on offer regarding the withdrawal of travel facilities.

BA presented this fudge as an ultimatum, warning Unite that it would be withdrawn if the promised ballot went ahead on 29 June. Faced with this predicament – whether to call BA’s bluff or give up on some of the key demands – Woodley and co wobbled, postponing the strike ballot under duress (on the grounds that it would be “inexplicable if we did not put this offer to our members”) and shuffling the decision about the fudged offer back to members.

With the strike momentum draining away, the union was left facing both ways: refusing to recommend an offer which does not restore the lost travel facilities, but at the same time presenting other aspects of the offer in a positive light.

Despite this wavering leadership, the mood of cabin crew remains militant. At BA’s AGM on 13 July, a couple of dozen cabin crew turned up to heckle Willie Walsh’s attempt to downplay the strike efforts, challenging him to “give us numbers” and pointing out that many of the planes that BA did manage to get aloft were in fact empty!

Given the degree to which this fight has been sustained by the growing militancy of flight crew themselves, it is not surprising that Walsh’s claim that BA is “not in dispute with staff” but with their union should have elicited raucous laughter from said staff members filling two rows of the audience.

BT

Meanwhile, a similar nervousness has been exhibited by the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU).

The attention of the labour movement had been concentrated upon 5 July, results day for the ballot asking BT workers if they wanted to hold their first national strike since 1987. Yet come the day, the CWU announced that it was abandoning the ballot because BT was alleging “technical breaches” that might land the union in court.

Four days later, the union accepted an offer of 3 percent a year (as opposed to the 5 percent claim behind which the strike ballot had been called in the first place).

Whatever the relative merits of the final deal, such nervousness around the anti-union laws – with unions effectively disenfranchising their own membership for fear of upsetting bourgeois courts – gives a sickening measure of the extent to which Labourism has been allowed to sap the workers’ movement.

BBC

Staff at the BBC are up in arms following the revelation that the broadcaster is planning to close the defined benefit pension for new starters (clearly the first step to getting rid of it altogether) and cut the link between earnings and pensionable salary by limiting the maximum possible pensionable earnings rise to 1 percent per annum, regardless of what happens to overall pay levels.

This high-profile assault upon a major public-sector pension scheme, taken in tandem with the threat to Royal Mail pensions, is clearly intended as the opening salvo in a general attack upon pensions right across the public sector.

Resistance to these politically motivated attacks needs to challenge the bosses’ logic of ‘these are hard times, it’s nobody’s fault’ etc, instead raising the clear and practical demand for proper pensions that are not criminally bound to the vagaries of the market, but rather form part of a single, government-underpinned pension plan, into which you pay and out of which you get a guaranteed, defined benefit.

Why should we accept the lottery of casino capitalism when it comes to providing for our old age? We worked. We are owed a pension. If the government can underwrite the banks, it can underwrite our pensions. We certainly don’t deserve to be plunged into pensioner poverty to pay for the bank bailout.

Queuing up to strike: Greece, France, Italy ... Britain?

Whilst the latest austerity measures have yet to stir the TUC from slumber, organised labour has been engaged in strikes against the capitalist offensive in one European country after another.

On 23 June, tens of thousands of strikers took part in demonstrations in Athens and 60 other cities across Greece under the popular front banner of PAME. On 24 June, a general strike in France focusing on plans to raise the retirement age caused major disruptions, particularly in rail, road and air transport. And on 25 June, it was the turn of the Italian workers to strike, in both the public and private sectors, in protest against Berlusconi’s attempt to impose a budgetary adjustment dictated by the EU.

The example set by the refusal of Greek workers to accept the attacks upon their living standards as ‘inevitable’ is of great interest, revealing as it does both the depths of popular anger at the injustice of the sacrifices being opposed and the degree to which revolutionary leadership is winning a hearing amongst those advanced workers rallying around the anti-reformist popular front movement of PAME.

On 8 July, Greece was again convulsed with strikes, this time in response to the demolition of the welfare state. As the Greek communists (KKE) expressed it: “The 13th strike demonstration over the last seven months was staged on the day when the parliament was passing the grotesque bill on social security which establishes 40 contribution years and retirement age 65 years both for men and women … while at the same time it establishes wages far below the collective labour agreements for young people under 25 years old.

Every new strike brings another rash of victimisations, but these are answered in turn by the foundation of wave upon wave of factory committees throughout the country.

Roll on the day when militants in Britain, like those organising around the National Shop Stewards’ Network, are able to follow this inspiring example of PAME, which is leading mass class mobilisations in spite of the foot-dragging of the opportunist leadership of the main union federations.

National Shop Stewards’ Network Conference

This lively and well-attended conference heard militant voices from many parts of the labour movement.

Steve Hedley of the RMT denounced the legal injunctions sheltering behind anti-trade union laws to overturn democratic strike ballots and saluted the example set by those workers who demonstrated the strength of organised labour by defying such unjust laws. The government and the bosses share a common strategy, he said: to split public from private-sector workers.

Matt Wrack of the FBU attacked the political consensus that holds it as a given that public-sector cuts are inevitable, countering this with the observation that, since workers had not caused the crisis, they should not be expected to pay for it. It is a lie that public-sector workers are getting ‘gold-plated’ pensions, he said, and this lie should not be allowed to divide public from private-sector workers.

Whilst the rich continue to do nicely under recession conditions, said Wrack, the attack upon workers’ pensions is a general one, and requires a no less general rebuff from the whole working class. Even President Obama is getting nervous at the probable economic consequences of the envisaged cuts programme, yet the new British government is hell-bent on extending the previous 13 years of Labour attacks upon the working class into the next period.

For example, moves to privatise the fire service are continuing without interruption. The answer, said Wrack, is for us to “build our own alternative”: to close tax loopholes for the rich, to scrap Trident and to stop the warmongering. We need to fight against the cuts agenda at home and build alliances across the world. In short, if the system is in crisis, we need to change the system.

A BA striker reported on the continuing attacks upon and victimisation of BASSA’s 12,000 members, answered to date by 22 days of strike action. She pointed out that Willie Walsh’s attacks on BASSA’s corner of Unite was in reality a class offensive against all trade unionism.

What will strengthen the NSSN will be the dawning recognition that, for workers in Britain, no less after the elections than before the elections, the key first step must be to break the link with the Labour party.

It is no coincidence that the RMT, which has the honour of remaining disaffiliated from Labour, stands in the van of those unions calling for class-wide action against the capitalist offensive, with Bob Crow recently urging the entire labour movement to hold a sustained campaign of strikes across both the public and private sector, supplemented by direct community action in defence of public services.

The NSSN has issued a statement denouncing the recent budget as a budget by and for the rich, urging the need for a national fight back against the cuts and calling upon the TUC to name a day for a national demonstration.

Should no such demo be called, NSSN is asking its supporters to lobby the TUC conference in Manchester to urge “a one-day public sector strike as the beginning of a serious fight-back”. Whilst pigs will fly before Brendan Barber leads “a serious fight-back”, communists will nonetheless stand shoulder to shoulder with the NSSN in their campaign, organising behind the slogan: Break the link with Labour!
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